Katherine Beck Johnson
May 20, 2020
**UPDATED as of 5/29
As the coronavirus pandemic has swept across the globe, many state and local governments have issued stay-at-home orders. Almost everyone in the United States has had some kind of restriction placed on them.
Various government authorities, particularly governors in California, Kentucky, Illinois, and Maine, have failed to prioritize religious liberty even as they prioritize other secular interests. Rather than looking at churches as partners to help care for our communities at this time, the governors in these states have treated churches as antagonists. Along with other governmental authorities, they have failed to cooperate with churches, often hindering them from assisting their communities during this time.
The Department of Justice, which has been focused on protecting religious liberty, especially during the pandemic, released a memo expressing its concern that this right not be violated at this time. The memo notes that reasonable restrictions may be permissible. However, a state may not cross the line from “an appropriate exercise of authority to stop the spread of COVID-19 into an overbearing infringement of constitutional and statutory protections.” Many churches have challenged discriminatory state and local orders by bringing suit in court. These court cases are listed below.
Churches that Won
1. Tabernacle Baptist Church v. Beshear
To curb the spread of the coronavirus, Kentucky governor Andrew Beshear ordered nonessential businesses to close. The state put a limit on “mass gatherings,” including those considered “faith-based.” Tabernacle Baptist Church planned to hold services in accordance with social distancing guidelines. Nevertheless, they were not allowed. The judge held that Tabernacle’s free exercise rights were violated, and granted a temporary restraining order.
2. On Fire Christian Center v. Fischer
On Fire Christian Center in Louisville, Kentucky was granted a temporary restraining order, allowing it to hold drive-in services for Easter Sunday. Judge Walker found that the Louisville mayor’s prohibition was not neutral because it allowed businesses, such as liquor stores, to remain open for drive-through purposes but not churches.
3. Maryville Baptist Church v. Beshear (church initially lost)
The district court denied the Hillview, Kentucky church’s emergency motion for a temporary restraining order. The district judge found that the order applied to “all gatherings” and not just faith-based gatherings. The judge found the exceptions to be singular transitory experiences, whereas church services are communal activities. However, the opinion was appealed to the Sixth Circuit.
On appeal, the Sixth Circuit held that the governor’s order likely prohibits the Free Exercise Clause and the Fourteenth Amendment, especially with respect to drive-in services. The governor had allowed law firms, laundromats, liquor stores, and gun shops to continue operating. The plaintiff’s motion for an injunction pending appeal was granted.
4. First Pentecostal Church of Holly Springs v. City of Holly Springs
In Mississippi, First Pentecostal Church of Holly Springs filed suit seeking a temporary restraining order permitting a planned Sunday service. At the hearing, the judge believed the city had made concessions that would resolve the dispute in question, but the court still put forth an order to clarify things. The judge noted that drive-in services should be permitted. Yet, the judge was less sympathetic to a request for a 35-person indoor gathering.
5. Berean Baptist Church v. Cooper
A federal judge in North Carolina granted a temporary restraining order, which allowed churchgoers to attend church in person. The North Carolina governor banned indoor church services of over 10 people, though outdoor services were still allowed. The judge noted that some religious services cannot be conducted outdoors or with fewer than 10 people. He also noted that the governor allowed over 10 people indoors for secular activities. Finally, the judge said, “The Governor has failed to cite any peer-reviewed study showing that religious interactions in those 15 states have accelerated the spread of COVID-19 in any manner distinguishable from non-religious interactions.”
6. Elkhorn Baptist Church, et al. v. Brown
More than 10 Oregon churches and multiple individuals brought suit against Governor Brown’s stay-at-home order. When the state started phase one opening, many churches still experienced heavy operating restrictions. The judge ruled that Brown’s executive order was null and void.
Churches that Lost
1. Lighthouse Fellowship Church v. Northam (DOJ intervened)
In Virginia, Lighthouse Fellowship Church on Chincoteague Island filed suit after the pastor was issued a citation for holding a Palm Sunday service for 16 people. The church sought a preliminary injunction against Governor Northam’s order, but a U.S. District Court judge denied that request. The next day, attorneys for the church filed a notice that it would appeal to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit and asked again for a temporary restraining order.
Governor Northam’s new order will allow churches to hold gatherings at 50 percent capacity.
2. Cassell v. Snyders
In Illinois, The Beloved Church sued because the stay-at-home order infringed on their religious practices. The governor reissued an order allowing churches to meet as long as they abided by the requirement of no more than 10 people. The judge held that the current crisis implicates Jacobson and advances the government’s interest in protecting Illinoisans from the pandemic. It has been appealed to the Seventh Circuit.
3. Legacy Church, Inc. v. Kunkel
In New Mexico, Legacy Church challenged the governor’s executive order, which restricts places of worship to gatherings of no more than five people within a single room. The judge held that the order did not violate the church’s First Amendment because it was neutral and generally applicable.
4. Calvary Chapel of Bangor v. Mills
In Maine, Calvary Chapel sued Governor Mills over her executive order, which limited gatherings to 10 people. The district judge held that the plaintiff was unlikely to succeed on the merits. The judge found that the order was placed to protect the people from the virus. The judge found the order to be neutral and generally applicable.
5. Elim Romanian Pentecostal Church v. Pritzker
Two churches in Illinois sued because they did not want to abide by the 10-person limit. The judge held that under Jacobson and a First Amendment analysis, the churches lost. The judge found that the order does not target religion. He noted that gatherings at church pose much more risk than gatherings at businesses. Finally, the judge noted that the order had nothing to do with suppressing religion but rather was executed to protect people from the disease.
Churches Awaiting an Opinion
1. Temple Baptist Church v. City of Greenville (DOJ intervened)
In Mississippi, Temple Baptist Church sued after congregants were ticketed for attending drive-in church services. The attorneys withdrew the request for a temporary restraining order because new guidance was issued.
2. Gish v. Newsom
A day after Easter, three church pastors and a congregant sued the state of California, as well as Riverside and San Bernardino counties, for refusing to designate houses of worship as essential services. The social distancing mandates are particularly challenging for James Moffatt of Church Unlimited in Indio, who, the lawsuit complaint said, “believes that scripture commands him as a pastor to lay hands on people and pray for them, this includes the sick.” Here is the church’s complaint.
3. Cross Culture Christian Center v. Newsom
After a Lodi, California church was ordered to temporarily shut down, the Cross Culture Christian Center sued. “Plaintiffs have sincerely held religious beliefs, rooted in the Bible, that followers of Jesus Christ are not to forsake the assembling of themselves together, and that they are to do so even more in times of peril and crisis.” Here is the church’s complaint.
4. Abiding Place Ministries v. Newsom
The San Diego church Abiding Place Ministries argued that California’s exemptions for non-religious businesses such as “cannabis retailers, grocery stores, pharmacies, supermarkets, big box stores,” betray a preference for non-religious activity. Here is the church’s complaint.
5. South Bay United Pentecostal Church v. Newsom
With Gov. Newsom declaring a transition from “Phase 1” to “Phase 2” of the state’s pandemic response, allowing for more businesses to open and operate, two religious institutions felt they were not treated equally in the reopening plans. The South Bay United Pentecostal Church in Chula Vista and the Chabad of Carmel Valley synagogue in San Diego are suing, arguing that the revised order restricts their congregation’s free exercise of religion, assembly, speech, and right to due process and that it constitutes “excessive government entanglement with religion.” Here is the church’s complaint.
6. Robinson, Knopfler v. Murphy
St. Thomas More Society is representing a Jewish rabbi and a Catholic priest against New Jersey’s Executive Order 107, which caps gatherings at 10 people. The police halted the celebration of Mass and a Jewish prayer ceremony, which requires 10 men.
7. Spell v. Edwards
Pastor Tony Spell of Life Tabernacle Church in Louisiana filed suit to stop Governor Edwards from enforcing restrictions on him and his church. Spell has proceeded in a manner lacking legal strategy, making it more likely he will lose.
8. Edgewater Christian Church v. Brown
Two churches in Oregon sued Governor Brown. The church argues that if people are able to gather at restaurants, they should be able to gather at church.
9. High Plains Harvest Church v. Polis
High Plains Harvest Church sued Colorado health officials over their ban which prevents churches from gathering. The suit notes that if hundreds of people can gather at Lowe’s, they should be able to gather at church.
** It should also be noted that some attorneys and legal firms sent letters to localities that resulted in churches being allowed to resume services. They did not get to the point of bringing suit. First Liberty has a list that can be found here.
While there seems to be a split in approaches to how some courts are handling the lawsuits by the church, there is an overwhelming willingness of judges to allow outdoor church services. While the pandemic continues to unfold, we will be monitoring the church lawsuits in the courts and making sure churches are treated equally. Leaders in states less interested in protecting religious liberty during the pandemic should not be permitted to prioritize secular interests over faith-based ones. It is crucial to religious liberty that churches are treated equally; the right to freely exercise one’s religion should not be infringed upon unnecessarily.