Eagle County to seek court order to force Basalt school to comply with mask mandate
Pastor at school says county ignores values and voices of parents
A battle over individual rights versus public health during a pandemic is coming to a head in the Roaring Fork Valley portion of Eagle County.
The Eagle County commissioners voted 2-0 Thursday — acting as the Board of Health — to direct their attorney to file a civil action that could require Cornerstone Christian School to follow a mask mandate if it continues in-person education. The request would have to be approved by a judge.
“In this case, whether or not someone agrees with the actions that we take to protect public health, it is our responsibility to make those decisions, stand by them, and if that is challenged, as I think it has clearly been in this case, we have to protect our ability to protect public health,” commissioner Matt Scherr said at Thursday’s meeting.
The Board of Health meeting was held in the county seat of Eagle. About 80 people attended the brief meeting, including several residents of the Roaring Fork Valley. Cornerstone Christian School is located between Basalt and El Jebel, roughly 50 miles away from Eagle.
Pastor Jim Tarr of the Cornerstone Christian Center and executive director of the related school, wasn’t able to speak at the Board of Health meeting because no public comment was allowed.
After the meeting, he provided a statement to The Aspen Times: “Eagle County Commissioners proved once again to not care about the voices and values of parents. Yesterday they switched the meeting concerning Cornerstone Christian School from public comment to private executive session. Having silenced our voices, they proceeded to give their one-sided story and to lecture us. We were allowed to sit like obedient children and be scolded. They have all the voice and control, just as they like it. But thank you, Eagle County Commissioners. You have strengthened my resolve ten-fold.”
The crowd of adults and kids packed the meeting room in Eagle while the commissioners met in a closed session elsewhere to get legal advice from county attorney Bryan Treu. Some attendees held signs with messages such as “Jesus Saves,” “Celebrate Liberty” and “No Mandates.”
Many attendees were clearly agitated by the county’s direction and some people interrupted the proceedings with angry comments. County officials warned the crowd three times that meeting would be convened elsewhere if the interruptions did not stop.
Scherr and commissioner Jeanne McQueeney voted to authorize the civil litigation. Commissioner Kathy Chandler-Henry was volunteering at the World Cup ski race in Beaver Creek and missed the meeting.
“This is a difficult place to be. It’s not someplace we wanted to be,” Scherr told the crowd. “The primary objective of everything we’ve been doing relative to COVID-19 has been protect the public health.”
Scherr acknowledged that some people feel wearing masks is a personal choice issue.
“Someone said that was a parent’s decision,” he said. “As has been said, someone’s right or freedom to swing their fist ends where someone else’s nose begins. In this case, that nose is public health. Our concern is the spread of the virus.”
McQueeney also said the county’s goal is to take precautions that allow in-person learning to continue. She said outbreaks happen at schools, but most institutions have been willing to work with the county public health department to “mitigate further spread.”
McQueeney said she was “disappointed” that the approach of Cornerstone officials changed since school representatives met with the Board of Health at a Nov. 4 meeting.
“The tone of that meeting was cooperation and ‘we’re going to do what we can,’ and I don’t know what happened to that,” McQueeney said.
She later added, “I just find it hard to believe that we’re here and I’m very sorry that we are and I have no problem at this point in pursuing civil action. It’s simply where we are.”
Treu, the county attorney, started the meeting by presenting the county’s perspective on why staff felt the civil action is necessary. The county issued an indoor mask mandate in September 2021 and extended it in October for schools and child care centers where the vaccination rate is less than 80%. There are a handful of exemptions, including children under age 2.
Cornerstone sent the county a letter in October asserting that the order was a violation of Constitutional rights and that the school would not comply. On Oct. 29, the county sent the school a letter that alleged the school was violating various provisions of the state public order and that it must comply or school officials would risk penalties.
School officials met with the Board of Health in an emergency meeting on Nov. 4 and the issue appeared to be resolved. The Board of Health issued a public health order directed specifically at the school.
Cornerstone went into a voluntary closure among kids in upper grades in October and among younger kids in early November to address the COVID outbreak among students and faculty.
“On Nov. 23, during Cornerstone’s voluntary closure, Eagle County received another letter from Cornerstone,” Treu said. “In this letter, Cornerstone asserts its school and childcare center would open for in-person learning on Nov. 29 but that Cornerstone would not comply with Eagle County’s mask mandate.”
In that letter, Tarr wrote, “The Eagle County Public Health Order includes some edicts which are counter to our beliefs as Christians that it is the God given right of the parent to choose what is best for their child.”
Eagle County sent two members of its public health department to Cornerstone on Tuesday “in an attempt to investigate compliance with the public health orders” at the school and child care, Treu continued. “Eagle County’s representatives were denied access to each of Cornerstone’s facilities.”
As of Nov. 30, there have been 22 cases of COVID identified at Cornerstone, with 14 students and eight staff members. Three persons were hospitalized and one staff member died, Treu said.
“We’re not asking for authority for a criminal action at this time, so the motion would be for a civil action to enforce the public health orders against Cornerstone Christian School,” Treu said in his conclusion.
Scherr reinforced the idea of seeking precautions rather than penalties.
“We do not want to enforce penalties,” he said. “We want to achieve the goal of the best thing for public health.”
After he and McQueeney approved authorization of the civil action, a woman in the audience shouted, “Communists.” Another woman followed by yelling, “Nazis” and a man shouted, “Marxists.”
Chase McWhorter, the parent of a student at Cornerstone, made the drive to attend the meeting. When asked afterward what he thought of the county’s direction, he said via email it was “predictable.”
“In my opinion, there is a two-part philosophical debate underscoring all this: One, does a proposed emergency warrant suspending individual rights to the will of the collective and, two, do children belong to their parents or the community?” McWhorter wrote. “Going into this meeting it was already clear Eagle County views children as belonging to the community and that individuals must succumb to the collective.”
McWhorter made it clear he was expressing his own views as a parent and not speaking for the Cornerstone leadership.
He said Cornerstone isn’t trying to be treated differently from any other school or group. “We simply don’t recognize the moral or legal jurisdiction to impose these kind of mandates,” he said.
He noted that Cornerstone closed down like other organizations early in the pandemic when the reasoning was “two weeks flatten the curve.” In addition, parents of students and church attendees have the option of wearing a mask to school and services.
“We have plenty of people who come to church and school in masks,” he said.
Cornerstone also took numerous steps to prevent the spread of the disease, including every child had their temperature taken at drop-off; if any symptoms were displayed, the child or adult was sent home; and masks were available to be worn if so desired.
“Cornerstone had much fewer cases than other schools in the valley, despite other schools having mask mandates, yet still chose to take the extra precaution to move to online learning,” McWhorter wrote.
He said he is uncertain what action he will take if a judge grants the county’s request that the school must comply with the mask mandate for in-person learning.
“I see Cornerstone having a lot more conviction in this decision than Eagle County does at enforcing these mandates, especially when other surrounding schools are having worse outbreaks,” he said.