The courtyard at Cornerstone Christian School is surrounded by brick buildings and features a large field for students to congregate and participate in outdoor class sessions.
Cornerstone Christian Schools wants to start in-person instruction on Aug. 17. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Cornerstone Christian Schools and other entities associated with San Antonio-based pastors John and Matthew Hagee have filed a lawsuit in Bexar County District Court challenging a local health directive, which calls for all area schools to conduct remote learning through Sept. 7.

Cornerstone, and other private religious schools, should be exempt from the order as it infringes on religious freedoms, according to the lawsuit filed on Friday. The school, which instructed about 1,300 students (pre-kindergarten through 12th grade) last year, wants to start in-person instruction on Aug. 17.

The San Antonio Metropolitan Health District directive is aimed at stemming the spread of the coronavirus and does not impede religious practices or content, City Attorney Andy Segovia said.

“They can include all that in virtual learning,” he said. “We’re just saying no in-classroom instruction. … We just don’t see how [the] order unfairly limits or restricts or stifles religious expression.”

A copy of the suit is available here. When contacted for comment by the Rivard Report, a Cornerstone representative referred back to a recent Facebook post. “We believe that parents should have the right to decide what is best for their families in the context of their children’s education,” the school wrote. “As such, all CCS students will have the option of in-person or virtual schooling.”

The school cites Attorney General Ken Paxton’s guidance issued on July 17 that said religious schools should be exempt from orders to keep campuses closed.

“Because a local order closing a religious private school or institution is inconsistent with the Governor’s order, any local order is invalid to the extent it purports to do so,” Paxton wrote.

Another letter of guidance released by Paxton on Tuesday led the Texas Education Agency to inform school districts that public schools that don’t open to in-person learning after eight weeks won’t receive funding.

Guidance from the attorney general, Texas’ top law enforcement officer, is not legally binding, Segovia said.

The lawsuit – which asks for an emergency temporary restraining order, a temporary injunction, and a permanent injunction – was brought by the Hagees, Cornerstone Christian Schools, Cornerstone Church, and John Hagee Ministries as well as four parents of students who attend the school.

Defendants include Mayor Ron Nirenberg, Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff, Metropolitan Health District Medical Director Junda Woo, San Antonio Police Department Chief of Police William McManus, and an SAPD officer.

The SAPD officer, identified only as “Officer Edwards” in the suit, investigated a complaint related to an alleged large gathering at the school, according to the lawsuit.

The suit said no citation was issued but “an unelected civil servant purporting to act on behalf of an undetermined ‘health authority’ in Bexar County and/or San Antonio, issued an illegal and unconstitutional ‘directive’ contrary to the orders and guidance of the Governor and Attorney General of Texas.”

The officer was “just doing her job,” Segovia said.

The directive will evolve as needed and a public meeting is scheduled for next week to review it, Woo said during Tuesday during the City and County’s daily coronavirus briefing.

“What the health directive is going to say is not up for a popular vote,” Woo said. “It is going to be based on what science says is safe.”

Nirenberg concurred, saying Metro Health’s directive to keep school campuses closed is designed to contain the spread of the coronavirus.

“The public authority’s directive applies to all public and private schools to protect the health and safety of our community,” Nirenberg said in an email. “This is a health directive based on the best scientific evidence available. It is 100 percent apolitical.”

Schools across the state – including religious schools – were required to stop in-classroom instruction in March when Gov. Greg Abbott issued an emergency order, Segovia said.

“Everybody complied,” Segovia said. “Nobody raised a peep” about constitutional violations.

The local directive has the same goal, he said. “The constitution didn’t change between March and July 2020. … That tells me that this is driven more by politics than it is either health [protocols] or legal reality.”

Paxton’s guidance says religious schools should follow the same health and safety practices that houses of worship should, Segovia said. But religious establishments often don’t have the same internal activities that schools do.

“It’s just illogical to say, ‘Hey, schools, follow what we’re telling churches to do,'” Segovia said. “It makes more sense to follow what other schools are being told to do.”

Cornerstone’s plan for in-person learning says the school “has developed enhanced health and safety protocols” in accordance with Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and TEA guidelines.

Classrooms will be set up to seat students and instructors six feet apart, doors to classrooms and offices will be propped open, and the school will take advantage of outdoor learning areas and grab-and-go lunches. Staff and students in fourth grade and higher are expected to wear face coverings between classes and when they are within six feet of others. Younger students are “encouraged” to wear face coverings in hallways, according to the plan.

“[Cornerstone] is committed to providing an educational experience consisting of unprecedented excellence in all areas, including health and safety for our warrior family,” according to the school’s plan.

Senior Reporter Iris Dimmick covers public policy pertaining to social issues, ranging from affordable housing and economic disparity to policing reform and mental health. She was the San Antonio Report's...