Basalt-area private school gets at least temporary reprieve from county mask mandate
Eagle County backs off attempt to get restraining order because of timing issues, might still pursue injunction
Eagle County backed off efforts Tuesday to try to force a private school in the Basalt area to follow a mask mandate but might renew the battle in January.
The county government filed an 11th-hour motion to cancel a hearing in Eagle County District Court for a temporary restraining order to make Cornerstone Christian School’s students and staff wear masks while indoors as a precaution against the spread of COVID-19. Cornerstone is located between El Jebel and Basalt in the Roaring Fork Valley.
The county public health director and board of public health requested a temporary restraining order on Dec. 6 and asked for an immediate ruling by Judge Russell Granger. The following day, Granger denied making a judgment without a hearing. He set a hearing for Tuesday.
County officials decided Monday afternoon to abandon the attempt to get a temporary restraining order because of timing issues.
“Eight days will have elapsed between Plaintiff’s initial request in this case and the Court’s potential reconsideration of the Motion,” Eagle County said in its motion. “If COVID-19 has continued to spread within Defendant’s school, that continued spread, which Plaintiffs sought to prevent by the Motion for Temporary Restraining Order, has likely already occurred.”
In addition, the school will go on Christmas break next week, so a temporary order would have little practical effect, county attorney Bryan Treu said in a statement issued to the media Tuesday. Instead, the county may seek a permanent order in January after classes resume, he said.
Granger vacated the hearing and told the attorneys for the county and Cornerstone to keep him apprised of the need for a hearing on a permanent order.
Pastor Jim Tarr of the Cornerstone Christian Center, also executive director of the school, chided the Eagle County commissioners Tuesday for denying Cornerstone’s “day in court.” Speaking during a public comment portion of the meeting, he accused county officials of supplying the media and public with a one-sided portrayal of events at the school and preventing church representatives from speaking in public forums.
He called the dispute a “clash of world views” of public health versus personal liberties.
Complicating the county’s strategy is the Omicron variant of COVID-19 and the future of the mask mandate.
The county commissioners, acting as the board of health, directed health director Heath Harmon on Tuesday to extend a public health order requiring masks to be worn indoors at schools for another month. It was set to expire Friday, Dec. 17. Now it is extended until Jan. 17.
Harmon said there is no doubt that Omicron is going to affect Eagle County and surrounding areas.
“It’s going to be a little bit bumpy,” he said. “We’re going to have a lot of cases going around.”
Extending the mask mandate to mid-January will buy time to see how the variant affects the region. Kids will be back in schools for about eight days with masks before the order is set to expire, Harmon noted. The goal, he said, is to remove the mask mandate as soon as deemed safe.
Safety is at the heart of the dispute between the county and Cornerstone. In its complaint, Eagle County contends that the school should be ordered to comply with the mask mandate to stop the spread of disease at Cornerstone’s school and child care center and in the midvalley community as a whole.
“The balance of equities favors an injunction because Plaintiffs’ protection of the public health from the risks associated with COVID-19, including hospitalization and death, outweigh any potential impact caused by complying with the Public Health Orders, including requiring face coverings in school settings in order to prevent further spread of this potentially deadly virus,” the county wrote in its complaint.
But the attorney for Cornerstone wrote in response that the county hasn’t made a specific case that warrants interfering with constitutional rights.
“(I)n its Motions and the Orders, Plaintiffs do not reference any public health emergency specific to Eagle County which would necessitate the urgency to restrain Cornerstone Christian and the fundamental constitutional rights of its families today,” wrote Beth Chambers of the Corporon law firm of Aurora.
Chambers contended that Cornerstone Christian would suffer irreparable harm if the mask mandate were required.
“The policy of Cornerstone Christian is compelled by its religious belief that it is the sole right and responsibility of parents to determine what is best for their children’s emotional, spiritual and physical well-being,” the response said.
It continued, “To require Cornerstone Christian, as a church, to dictate decisions to parents concerning their child’s mask-wearing would directly burden the freedoms afforded to Cornerstone Christian families to exercise their religious beliefs about parental authority and responsibility. Before God, Cornerstone Christian cannot submit to government demands to violate their religious convictions in this way. Moreover, such a demand would violate the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.”
In addition, Chambers’ response said the county failed to show how it would be irreparably harmed by Cornerstone’s position on parental discretion, and that the county health order was an unconstitutional delegation of power.
However the court battle plays out, it has already taken a toll on the small school. In earlier meetings with county officials, Tarr said there were roughly 100 students in kindergarten through 12th grade. Tuesday he told the commissioners “we’ve lost about 50% of our school.”
Tarr insisted he would continue to defend freedoms and liberties guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution out of principle.
The county commissioners, acting as the health board, said in a previous meeting they wouldn’t pursue criminal charges against Cornerstone officials. However, Tarr said defying a possible civil order mandating masks could have consequences such as fines and jail time.
“You can fine me into oblivion if you want to,” Tarr said. “I could lose my house. I could lose my checking account. I could lose my position at the church. I could lose this school, but one thing I won’t stand by and lose is the liberties and freedoms granted to me by the Constitution of the United States.