Dallas County Restricting Private School Reopenings is Unconstitutional, AG Paxton Says

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In a letter to religious private schools, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton said the local public health orders filed in Dallas County attempting to restrict religious private schools from reopening with in-person instruction were unconstitutional Friday.

Dallas County issued an order Thursday afternoon requiring all schools in the county, including religious private schools, to delay in-person education and extracurricular activities until after Sept. 7 due to COVID-19.

"As protected by the First Amendment and Texas law, religious private schools may continue to determine when it is safe for their communities to resume in-person instruction free from any government mandate or interference," Paxton said in the letter. "Religious private schools therefore need not comply with local public health orders to the contrary."

Paxton also cited the Texas Texas Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which prohibits the government from “substantially burden[ing]” the free exercise of religion, unless it can demonstrate a compelling interest for the restriction and prove it applies in the least restrictive way.

The Diocese of Dallas Catholic Schools has yet to make a decision on the in-person reopening of its Dallas County schools impacted by the public health order, superintendent Matt Vereecke said in a statement Friday.

"We are aware of the Dallas County order as well as the Attorney General's letter regarding the start of in-person classes, and we are reviewing all options," Vereecke said. "Parents will be hearing from their local schools within the next week with their revised plans for the fall and next steps."

Dallas County's order also required each school system in the county to send a written plan for resuming on-campus instruction and extra-curricular activities to the local health authority at least two weeks prior to reopening. The plan must also be available to the general public.

The Diocese of Dallas Catholic Schools has fewer than 15,000 students at 36 schools across North Texas, including several in Dallas County, most notably Bishop Dunne and Bishop Lynch high schools.

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