Author archives: Kaitlyn Shepherd

The Unshakable Faith of a Baker From Colorado

by Kaitlyn Shepherd

July 9, 2021

I remember when Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission was argued at the U.S. Supreme Court in December 2017. People hoping to witness the oral arguments had been camped outside the Court for days. That morning, crowds of people waited to hear how the justices would rule on Jack Phillips, a Colorado baker who had declined to make a cake celebrating a same-sex wedding.

In May 2021, Phillips published his account of what happened in The Cost of My Faith: How a Decision in My Cake Shop Took Me to the Supreme Court. The book describes his split-second decision to not bake the cake, explains the ensuing years of legal challenges, and recounts the lessons he learned from the experience. His story is an encouraging testimony of God’s faithfulness to sustain His children throughout life’s difficulties.

As Legal Battles Mounted, Phillips’ Faith Only Grew

Phillips begins by recalling a life-changing conversation he had with two men, David and Charlie, who came into Masterpiece Cakeshop to ask him to create a custom wedding cake for their wedding. Phillips politely declined, stating that he could not create a custom cake for a same-sex wedding but that he would be happy to sell them anything else in his shop. The conversation was brief, and David and Charlie refused to give Phillips a chance to explain his rationale further.

Phillips recalls his desire to extend the conversation so he could explain that although he will gladly serve anyone, he cannot express every message “because of the content of the message that the imagery or words on the cake might convey” (3). Since opening Masterpiece Cakeshop in 1993, Phillips had adhered to this simple rule and had previously declined to make cakes featuring a variety of messages, such as obscene language, hateful rhetoric, and statements or images that “mocked or contradicted [his] faith” or celebrated events such as divorce or Halloween (61, 71).

The Colorado Civil Rights Commission ruled against Phillips and held that compelling him to express messages he disagreed with did not violate his First Amendment rights. After the case worked its way through the lower courts, the U.S. Supreme Court took the case. In June 2018, the Court sided with Phillips and held that the Commission’s actions violated Phillips’ right to freely exercise his religion. Writing for the majority, Justice Anthony Kennedy noted that the record showed the Commission’s “clear and impermissible hostility” toward Phillips’ sincerely-held religious beliefs, and he explained how the Commission treated Phillips differently than other bakers, who declined to create custom cakes that expressed messages opposing same-sex marriage.

Less than a month after this victory, Phillips faced another legal challenge. On the same day that the Supreme Court granted cert in Phillips’ case, one would-be customer, Autumn Scardina, had requested a cake that was pink on the inside and blue on the outside to celebrate a gender transition. Phillips declined to create the cake because of its intended message. In response to charges brought against him by the Colorado Civil Rights Commission, Phillips and his attorneys filed a federal lawsuit against the Commission. In March 2019, the state’s attorneys offered to settle the case after evidence showing the Commission’s continuing hostility to Phillips’ religious beliefs surfaced. After this second victory, Phillips hoped to continue his business in peace.

That peace, however, was remarkably short-lived. In June 2019, Scardina, seeking over $100,000 in fines and damages, filed another lawsuit against Phillips in state court. On June 15, 2021, the court ruled against Phillips. The court found that Phillips’ refusal to bake the cake was based on Scardina’s transgender status, not on the cake’s intended message, and that forcing Phillips to bake the cake would not violate his First Amendment rights to free speech and free exercise of religion.

Phillips concludes the book by describing the lessons he learned during the many years of legal challenges. He states that although some may have intended their attacks to destroy his faith, his faith is now stronger than ever. He expresses gratitude for having been given a platform to speak the truth. Phillips has also grown in humility and patience and has learned to be a better listener. He has gained a greater appreciation for the wise system of government instituted by the Founders. Most importantly, though, Phillips experienced God’s goodness:

[C]oming through oppressive days, enduring the death threats, the hate mail, the obscene phone calls and public demonstrations, seeing the tears of my wife and the worries of my children, hearing people call me a bigot and a Nazi, listening while elected officials openly mocked the deepest convictions of my soul—let me assure you, this is when God’s mercies abound. This is when He comforts us in the deep places of the soul that only He can reach. (188–89)

Peaceful, Unshakeable Faith in God’s Provision

Phillips’ compelling testimony is a must-read for any believer. First, Phillips’ account provides a thorough and accessible description of one of the most influential religious freedom cases of the past decade. He clearly describes the timeline of events and explains why the case was so momentous, not only for him but for all people of faith (98). Although the case concerned Colorado’s attempts to compel Phillips to speak messages that violated his conscience and to force him to choose between his religious beliefs and his business, the case has broader implications for the rights of all Americans “who share[] his biblical views on human sexuality and marriage” (194).

Second, Phillips’ story will encourage believers who may feel disheartened. Although losing 40 percent of his business, facing hateful emails and death threats, and having his reputation attacked by public officials could have caused Phillips to waver in his faith, his testimony overflows with a sense of peace and an unshakeable belief in God’s character and provision. As Phillips recalled while waiting for the Supreme Court’s verdict:

You might think the long wait was especially stressful—an exercise in impatient endurance, where we gritted our teeth to get through the endless days. But it wasn’t like that at all. I genuinely felt an immense peace after our arguments. I was content in knowing we’d done everything we could do. That we’d been as faithful as possible and the outcome really was always totally in God’s reliable hands. (143)

Phillips’ faith is a testament to the Holy Spirit’s power to encourage believers throughout life’s challenges.

Finally, Phillips’ account can inspire believers to stand firm in their faith. Although his experiences could have made him retreat from his faith, Phillips viewed them as an opportunity:

What’s the point of suddenly being on so many people’s radars if you can’t use those moments to share with them your deepest beliefs? That, for me, is the best news in the whole world: the love of Jesus Christ. (11)

Unfortunately, hostility toward Christianity and toward those who adhere to a biblical worldview is only increasing. Like Phillips, may we all have faith to stand firm and to be willing to serve as God’s instrument whatever the cost.

Kaitlyn Shepherd is Research Assistant for Legal and Policy Studies at Family Research Council.

6 Times the Supreme Court Has Ruled Against California Church Restrictions

by Kaitlyn Shepherd

April 29, 2021

On Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court vacated a Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals decision in a case challenging restrictions California imposed on houses of worship due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Monday’s order marks the sixth time that the Supreme Court has ruled against unfair restrictions that treated California churches more strictly than secular businesses.

For months, California churches faced particularly complicated and onerous restrictions that limited church attendance and inhibited religious exercise. In multiple cases, churches and pastors faced fines or the threat of imprisonment for holding indoor worship services. However, following Justice Barrett’s appointment to the Supreme Court in October 2020, California churches have started to experience relief. As of April 23, 2021, California’s guidance for houses of worship states that “location and capacity limits on places of worship are not mandatory but are strongly recommended. Additionally, the restrictions on indoor singing and chanting are recommended only.”

The Supreme Court’s willingness to defend religious liberty is a welcome development. Because of the Court’s guidance on this issue, more and more states are relaxing their worship restrictions. As of April 26, 2021, 41 states impose no restrictions on in-person indoor worship. Only nine states and the District of Columbia still impose a percentage-based limit on indoor worship. D.C. is the last remaining jurisdiction that imposes both a percentage limit and a numerical cap on the number of people who can congregate for indoor worship services. However, these restrictions were enjoined by court order in March 2021, and the D.C. government has announced it will remove the numerical cap beginning May 1, 2021.

What follows is a timeline of the six times the U.S. Supreme Court has issued opinions or orders upholding the rights of churches against California’s COVID-19 restrictions.

1. South Bay United Pentecostal Church v. Newsom

On February 5, 2021, the Supreme Court enjoined California’s total ban on indoor worship in Tier 1 counties (i.e., those where the risk of COVID-19 transmission was said to be widespread). The Court’s decision allowed churches in these counties to reopen at 25 percent capacity but left the state’s ban on indoor singing and chanting in place. In a separate statement, Justice Gorsuch, joined by Justices Thomas and Alito, noted that “California has openly imposed more stringent regulations on religious institutions than on many businesses.”

2. Harvest Rock Church v. Newsom

On the same day, the Supreme Court partially granted an injunction that prevented California from enforcing its total ban on indoor worship services against Harvest Rock Church while the case was being resolved in the lower courts. The decision allowed Harvest Rock and other churches in Tier 1 counties to reopen at 25 percent capacity, but it kept California’s ban on indoor singing and chanting in place. Although they joined the majority’s order, Justices Thomas and Gorsuch stated that they would have granted the injunction against the capacity limits and the ban on singing and chanting as well.

3. Gish v. Newsom

On February 8, 2021, the Supreme Court vacated a California district court’s dismissal of a case that challenged various state and local orders banning indoor worship services. The Supreme Court directed the lower court to reconsider the case in light of its recent South Bay decision.

4. Gateway City Church v. Newsom

On February 26, 2021, the Supreme Court granted an injunction that prevented enforcement of California’s restrictions against Gateway City Church. Noting that the “outcome [was] clearly dictated by [its] decision in South Bay United Pentecostal Church v. Newsom,” the Court admonished the lower court, saying its “failure to grant relief was erroneous.”

5. Tandon v. Newsom

On April 9, 2021, the Supreme Court granted another injunction against California’s restrictions. This time, the Court addressed California’s requirement that at-home religious gatherings could not contain more than three separate households. In its opinion, the Court emphasized that “government regulations are not neutral and generally applicable … whenever they treat any comparable secular activity more favorably than religious exercise.” The Court added that some secular activities being treated worse than religious ones is not a defense. It also stressed that the government bears the burden of showing “that measures less restrictive of the First Amendment activity could not address its interest in reducing the spread of COVID.” Because California “treat[ed] some comparable secular activities more favorably than at-home religious exercise” and the lower court did not find that religious activities posed more of a threat than the secular activities, the Court found that the “[a]pplicants [were] likely to succeed on the merits of their free exercise claim” and that an injunction was warranted.                                                                           

6. South Bay United Pentecostal Church v. Newsom

On April 26, 2021, the Supreme Court returned to South Bay United Pentecostal Church’s case. The Court vacated the judgment of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals and remanded the case for reconsideration in light of its decision in Tandon v. Newsom.

It is unfortunate to have seen so much discrimination against religious gatherings over the past year. For a full list of such instances, see here. May we continue to work and pray toward the protection of our freedom to gather as believers and live out our faith during this time.

Supreme Court Takes a Look at Religious Liberty for Adoption Providers in Fulton Case

by Kaitlyn Shepherd

November 4, 2020

Today, the Supreme Court heard telephonic oral arguments in Fulton v. City of Philadelphia, a case that concerns the right of religious foster care agencies to speak and act consistently with their sincerely held religious beliefs.

Catholic Social Services (“CSS”) is a religiously affiliated ministry that has provided foster care services in the City of Philadelphia for over 200 years. Part of its work requires it to evaluate prospective foster parents to certify that they meet state standards. Because of its sincerely held religious belief that marriage is between one man and one woman, CSS considers same-sex couples to be unmarried and is unable to certify them as foster parents. Although an LGBT-identified couple has never approached CSS, if this were to happen, CSS would simply refer the couple to another agency that would be able to certify them. Nevertheless, the City of Philadelphia stopped referring children to CSS.

At the Supreme Court, several of the justices demonstrated willingness to protect the religious beliefs of CSS and similar agencies. Justice Kavanaugh emphasized the fact that CSS’s beliefs have never prevented an LGBT-identified couple from fostering a child in Philadelphia. He stated that:

It seems like Philadelphia created a clash … and was looking for a fight and has brought that serious, controversial fight all the way to the Supreme Court even though no same-sex couple had gone to CSS, even though 30 agencies are available for same-sex couples, and even though CSS would refer any same-sex couple to one of those other agencies.

He emphasized that on this controversial issue, the government should seek “win-win answers” and try to accommodate sincerely held religious beliefs as much as possible:

[G]overnments should be looking, where possible, for win-win answers, recognizing that neither side is going to win completely on these issues given the First Amendment on the one hand and given Obergefell on the other … [W]e need to find a balance that also respects religious beliefs … And what I fear here is that [a position that does not allow any exemptions for organizations like CSS] would require us to go back on the promise of respect for religious believers.        

Justice Alito expressed concern that the City had attempted to suppress a viewpoint with which it did not agree:

[I]f we are honest about what’s really going on here, it’s not about ensuring that same-sex couples in Philadelphia have the opportunity to become foster parents. It’s the fact that the city can’t stand the message that Catholic Social Services and the Archdiocese are sending by continuing to adhere to the old-fashioned view about marriage.

Even some of the Court’s more liberal justices were concerned about the City’s actions. Justice Breyer stated, “What’s actually bothering me quite a lot about this case is I think that no [LGBT-identified] family has ever been turned down by this agency. Indeed, none has ever applied.”

Justice Amy Coney Barrett, who participated in oral arguments for the first time on Monday, asked one of the attorneys whether the Court’s controversial decision in Employment Division v. Smith should be overruled. Justice Alito also questioned the “stability” of the Smith decision. If the Court were to overrule this decision, it would likely reinstate a legal standard that provides strong protection for religious liberty.

The Court’s decision could have significant implications not only for the rights of religious foster care agencies, but religious liberty in a much broader sense. The Court is expected to decide this case by the end of June, and it is certainly one to keep an eye on.

In Fulton, the Religious Liberty of Foster Care Providers Hangs in the Balance

by Kaitlyn Shepherd

October 21, 2020

During its last term, the Supreme Court garnered considerable attention by wading into the culture wars over polarizing social issues such as abortion and sexuality. Decisions to strike down a common-sense law requiring abortionists to have hospital admitting privileges and to redefine “sex” to include sexual orientation and gender identity were mourned by conservatives and applauded by liberals.

While secular activists lamented, conservatives celebrated decisions upholding the rights of religious families and schools to participate in neutral tuition assistance programs and requiring foreign organizations to adopt policies opposing prostitution and sex trafficking to receive federal funds to combat HIV/AIDS. The Court will likely remain in the public eye during its current term, when it will hear arguments in Fulton v. City of Philadelphia, a case that will have significant implications for the future of religious liberty and foster care in America. The justices will hear oral arguments in the case on November 4.

The First Amendment provides that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof ….” Thus, the Constitution protects religious liberty in two separate but related provisions. The Establishment Clause prevents Congress from favoring any religious denomination at the national level, while the Free Exercise Clause guarantees Americans the right to believe and act according to their religious convictions. Both Clauses also constrain the actions of the states. Prior to 1963, the right to freely exercise one’s religion was somewhat limited. While an individual’s religious beliefs were absolutely protected, his or her freedom to act on those beliefs could be fairly easily regulated.  

In 1963 and 1972, the Supreme Court decided two landmark religious liberty cases, Sherbert v. Verner and Wisconsin v. Yoder. These cases established the strict scrutiny standard, which means that when the government implements a law or policy that burdens someone’s right to free exercise, it must show (1) that it has a compelling state interest that justifies its burden on religious exercise and (2) that its law or policy is the least restrictive means of accomplishing this compelling interest. Because of their robust protection of religious liberty, Sherbert and Yoder ushered in a Golden Age of religious freedom in America.

In 1990, the Court issued an unexpected decision that dramatically changed religious liberty protections. In Employment Division v. Smith, the Court abandoned the strict scrutiny standard and held that the government only needs to show that its law or policy is neutral and generally applicable in order to overcome a free exercise challenge. This “neutral law of general applicability” standard waters down protections for religious liberty by giving the government a lower bar to overcome. The government only needs to demonstrate that the law treats religious and secular groups equally and was not enacted to target religion. Under this standard, religious individuals are rarely successful in court and must prove that they were actively targeted for their religious beliefs to prevail.

In its upcoming term, the Court will consider Fulton v. City of Philadelphia. The decision will impact the rights of religious foster care agencies to speak and act consistently with their sincerely held religious beliefs. One of the plaintiffs in the case, Catholic Social Services (CSS), is a faith-based foster care agency that operates in Philadelphia. When a child enters Philadelphia’s foster care system, the City refers them to one of several foster care agencies. These agencies then evaluate prospective foster parents to certify that they meet state standards. Because of its sincerely held religious belief that marriage is between one man and one woman, CSS considers same-sex couples to be unmarried and is unable to certify them as foster parents. However, if an LGBT-identified couple were ever to approach them (which has never happened), CSS would refer them to another agency that would be a better fit. Nevertheless, Philadelphia’s Department of Human Services has stopped referring children to CSS.

In the lower courts, CSS argued that the City’s actions were neither neutral nor generally applicable and targeted CSS because of its religious beliefs. The Third Circuit Court of Appeals held that there was no First Amendment violation and that Philadelphia did not treat CSS differently because of its religious beliefs. Rather, the court found that Philadelphia was merely engaged in a good-faith effort to enforce its nondiscrimination policy, which “prohibits sexual orientation discrimination in public accommodations.”  

In Fulton, one of the major issues that the Supreme Court will consider is whether it should revisit its decision in Employment Division v. Smith. If the Court revisits and overrules Smith, it will be a major victory for religious liberty that could restore the favorable strict scrutiny standard. However, if the Court declines to revisit Smith, or revisits and upholds Smith, its damaging precedent will become further entrenched in American law, dealing a major blow to religious liberty. The Court’s decision could be influenced by its recent decision in Bostock v. Clayton County, which, as Justice Alito predicted in his dissent, could affect the speech of those who desire to “express[] disapproval of same-sex relationships …”

Allowing religious discrimination against faith-based foster care agencies would not just be a blow to the constitutionally-protected right of religious liberty. It would also be detrimental to the already overburdened foster care system. In states and localities that have forced religious agencies to close, children suffer. For example, after Illinois passed a statute that forced all foster care and adoption agencies to place children with same-sex couples, nearly 3,000 children were displaced from religious agencies that were forced to close, and over 5,000 foster homes were lost. In Philadelphia, the home of a “Foster Parent of the Year” award winner who had been serving needy youth for decades was forcibly closed to foster youth, as were others. After the City ended its contract with CSS, siblings of children who had already been placed by the agency faced the daunting prospective of being forced into separate homes.  

Pennsylvania is not the only state to witness the targeting of religious foster care agencies. In Michigan, an activist couple targeted St. Vincent Catholic Charities, passing four other agencies they could have worked with as they traveled from their home to St. Vincent. Here, referrals had been made. Children in St. Vincent’s care had been transferred to other agencies working with LGBT-identified couples who were interested in adopting children in St. Vincent’s care. And in New York, New Hope Family Services, which has been serving needy children for over 50 years, was informed by the state that it must either change its policy of referring LGBT-identified couples to other agencies or cease its adoption services. A New York District Court judge recently issued an injunction on behalf of the church, preventing the state “from revoking New Hope Family Services’ authorization to place children for adoption.”

In Fulton, the Court stands poised to issue a decision that will have a lasting impact on the religious liberty of foster care agencies and perhaps that of all Americans. While we watch and wait for the Court’s decision, we should pray that God would give the justices wisdom to make the right decision.

Kaitlyn Shepherd is a legal intern with the Policy & Government Affairs Department at Family Research Council.

California Is Fining Churches for Using Common Sense

by Kaitlyn Shepherd

September 4, 2020

Even though the First Amendment clearly protects religious liberty, California continues to stymie churches’ efforts to reopen amidst the coronavirus pandemic.

On August 28, Governor Newsom announced a new statewide reopening plan, which replaced the previous county monitoring list. Under the new system, each county will be classified under one of four tiers. Each tier has a corresponding color that designates the county’s coronavirus risk level, which is based on the number of new coronavirus cases per day and the percentage of positive tests. Purple counties (widespread risk level) have more than seven new cases per day (per every 100,000) and more than eight percent positive tests. Red counties (substantial risk level) have four to seven new cases per day (per every 100,000) and five to eight percent positive tests. Orange counties (moderate risk level) have one to 3.9 new cases per day (per every 100,000) and two to 4.9 percent positive tests. Yellow counties (minimal risk level) have less than one new case per day (per every 100,000) and less than two percent positive tests.

Unfortunately, California’s new system fails to adequately prioritize the First Amendment rights of its churches and congregations. As of the Governor’s announcement on Friday, 38 of the state’s 58 counties (approximately 87 percent of the population) were in the highly restrictive purple tier. In these counties, churches are not allowed to hold indoor services. In red counties (currently nine counties), churches may hold indoor services, but they may only admit up to 25 percent of their building’s capacity or 100 people, whichever is fewer. Churches in orange counties (currently nine counties) may also hold indoor services but must limit attendance to 50 percent of building capacity or 200 people, whichever is fewer. Churches in yellow counties may admit up to 50 percent of their building’s capacity, but only two counties, Modoc and Alpine Counties, are currently classified under this tier. According to industry guidance (current as of July 29), all churches have been ordered to “discontinue indoor singing and chanting activities.”

In addition to statewide restrictions preventing churches from resuming in-person services, California churches are also facing opposition at the local level. Los Angeles County’s Grace Community Church resumed in-person services on July 26. After the County threatened the church with civil and criminal penalties for continued violations of the County’s prohibition on indoor worship services, the church filed a lawsuit against Governor Newsom, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, and other public officials. The County tried—and failed—four times to obtain court orders that would force the church to cease holding in-person services. On August 28, in another attempt to prevent the church from reopening, the County “terminat[ed] the church’s lease on a large portion of [its] parking lot.”

Grace Community Church is not alone in its struggle to reopen. In Ventura County, a judge held Godspeak Calvary Chapel and its pastor, Rob McCoy, in contempt of court. He fined the church $3,000 for holding indoor services in violation of a temporary restraining order that mandated compliance with the County’s prohibition on such services. And in Santa Clara County, North Valley Baptist Church has been fined over $52,000 for continuing to hold in-person services.

As churches in California and across the country consider reopening, they should make every effort to reopen safely by taking reasonable precautions and following common-sense guidelines. It is high time that California allows them to do so.

Kaitlyn Shepherd is a legal intern with Policy & Government Affairs at Family Research Council.

Supreme Court Abandons Human Dignity in Russo but Upholds It in Open Society

by Katherine Beck Johnson , Kaitlyn Shepherd

June 30, 2020

The disappointing decision in June Medical v. Russo dominated the airwaves yesterday. However, there was a win for human dignity in another Supreme Court case. In Agency for International Development v. Alliance for Open Society International, Inc., the Court held that the Leadership Act’s Policy Requirement—which requires organizations receiving federal funds to combat HIV/AIDS to adopt a policy explicitly opposing prostitution and sex trafficking—is constitutional as applied to domestic organizations’ foreign affiliates. We applaud the Court’s decision. The Leadership Act’s Policy Requirement is a common-sense measure that promotes the human dignity of all people and especially women, who are most frequently the victims of prostitution and sex trafficking.

In 2003, congressional findings indicated that HIV/AIDS had “assumed pandemic proportions.” Data showed that, since the 1980s, the disease had killed more than 25 million people, infected an additional 40 million people, and orphaned an estimated 14 million children worldwide. In response, the United States Leadership Against HIV/AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria Act of 2003 (the Leadership Act) “outlined a comprehensive strategy to combat the spread of HIV/AIDS around the world.” As part of this strategy, the Act prescribed efforts “to address the social and behavioral causes of the problem” and authorized the president to allocate funds to organizations that combat HIV/AIDS overseas. With a few exceptions, only organizations that adopted “a policy explicitly opposing prostitution and sex trafficking” were eligible to receive funds.

In 2005, a group of United States-based organizations challenged the Policy Requirement. They argued that “adopting a policy explicitly opposing prostitution may alienate certain host governments, and may diminish the effectiveness of some of their programs by making it more difficult to work with prostitutes in the fight against HIV/AIDS.” Some organizations on the left, joined by some libertarians, advocate for the legalization of prostitution (which they call “sex work”), ostensibly to allow government regulation of health and safety. They argue that a distinction can be made between “sex work” and “sex trafficking” and believe that legalization would help to empower “sex workers.” Prostitution is inherently degrading to women, and there is no evidence that its legalization makes this practice less exploitative. When it comes to fighting HIV/AIDS, discouraging a “profession” that inherently involves the high-risk behavior of sexual relations with multiple partners should be part of our national strategy. Congress held this view, and insisted that U.S. aid recipients overseas do the same.

In 2013, the Supreme Court held that the Policy Requirement was unconstitutional as applied to American organizations operating overseas because it compelled these organizations to adopt the government’s stance on prostitution and sex trafficking as a condition of receiving the funds.

In 2015, the organizations renewed their challenge to the Policy Requirement. They opposed the government’s continued application of the Policy Requirement to their “closely aligned” foreign affiliates, organizations that shared the same “name, logo, brand, and mission” but were legally separate entities incorporated under the laws of other nations. The Second Circuit Court of Appeals struck down the Policy.

In its decision yesterday, the Supreme Court reversed the decision of the Second Circuit. Writing for the majority, Justice Kavanaugh noted that long-standing principles of American law compel the conclusion that “[a]s foreign organizations operating abroad, plaintiff’s foreign affiliates possess no rights under the First Amendment.” President Trump’s other appointee, Justice Gorsuch, also joined the majority. The Court was unpersuaded by the organizations’ argument that the speech of their foreign affiliates would be misattributed to them because the organizations were not compelled by the government to affiliate with these foreign organizations or to espouse their message. Any misattribution would be a result of their own actions, not those of the government.

The Court’s decision has important implications for human dignity. The Bible teaches that both men and women are created in the image of God and that each person is “fearfully and wonderfully made.” This means all people possess inherent dignity, worth, and value. By objectifying women, the sex trafficking industry fails to acknowledge the human dignity of women. Congress itself recognized this, stating that “[p]rostitution and other sexual victimization are degrading to women and children and it should be the policy of the United States to eradicate such practices.” The Court’s decision yesterday should be celebrated because requiring organizations to adopt a policy explicitly opposing prostitution and sex trafficking promotes the dignity of all people around the world. 

Katherine Beck Johnson is Research Fellow for Legal and Policy Studies at Family Research Council.

Kaitlyn Shepherd is a legal intern with Policy & Government Affairs at Family Research Council.

Churches Are Filing Lawsuits Over Coronavirus Restrictions. Here Is a List.

by Katherine Beck Johnson , Kaitlyn Shepherd

May 20, 2020

**UPDATED as of 8/06

As the coronavirus pandemic has taken hold, religious services have been disrupted across the United States in perhaps the most drastic manner in recent memory. Many state and local governments have clamped down on gatherings, and almost everyone in the United States has had some kind of restriction placed on them. Yet not all government authorities have respected religious freedom during this process.

Various state authorities, particularly governors in California, Nevada, Washington, Connecticut, New Jersey, and Maine, have failed to prioritize religious liberty even as they prioritized 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. As have certain 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 keenly focused on protecting religious liberty, released a memo expressing its concern that this fundamental right not be violated during the pandemic. The memo notes that reasonable restrictions may be permissible during this time. 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.

*Update: The temporary restraining order was dissolved and the case was dismissed after the parties agreed that the church would take reasonable steps to comply with the CDC’s social distancing guidelines.

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 in part.

*Update: On May 8, 2020, the district court granted the injunction with respect to the in-person services, finding that the church was likely to succeed on its Kentucky Religious Freedom Restoration Act claim and its constitutional claims. On May 9, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, in another case involving Maryville Baptist Church, found that the governor’s restrictions on in-person worship likely violated the First and Fourteenth Amendments. Read more about the case here.

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.

*Update: The church was burned down on May 20, 2020 in an act of suspected arson. Two days later, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals granted the church’s motion for a temporary injunction, allowing it to hold in-person services. Judge Willett issued a powerful concurrence on behalf of the church, condemning the City’s lack of sympathy and outrage over the destruction of a “neighborhood house of worship” and declaring the City’s argument that the arson rendered the First Amendment claim moot to be “shameful.”

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.”

*Update: The case was voluntarily dismissed in response to changes in the Governor’s orders.

6. 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.

*Update: Case voluntarily dismissed on June 10, 2020 after Phase 2 of Oregon’s reopening plans allows church to resume services.

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.

*Update: The charges against the pastor were eventually dropped. On May 21, 2020, the U.S. District Court denied the church’s emergency motion for an injunction pending appeal.

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.

*Update: On July 13, 2020, the court denied the church’s request for a temporary restraining order and a preliminary injunction. The judge found that there was no religious animus and that similar restrictions were imposed on secular entities.

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.

*Update: The First Circuit Court of Appeals denied the church’s motion for an injunction pending appeal on June 2, 2020.

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.

*Update: After the churches’ request for an injunction pending appeal was denied by the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals, the case proceeded to the U.S. Supreme Court, which denied the application for injunctive relief because of new guidance issued by the Illinois Department of Public Health on May 28. The case went back to the Seventh Circuit, and a panel of judges affirmed the court’s decision in favor of the governor. The court held that Illinois’s restrictions on the size of church gatherings did not violate the First Amendment. On July 27, the Seventh Circuit denied a request for a rehearing before the full court.

6. 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.

*Update: Request for a Temporary Restraining Order was denied. The orders were found to be neutral. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals also denied the request for an emergency injunction pending appeal. The case was eventually dismissed on July 8, 2020.

7. 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.

*Update: Request for Temporary Restraining Order was denied. The court noted the general police powers to promote safety during a public health crisis.

8. 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.

*Update: Request for Preliminary Injunction denied on June 4, 2020 (issue is moot in light of May 25 guidelines).

9. 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.

*Update: Case went to the Supreme Court. Application for injunctive relief was denied May 29, 2020 (Roberts, C.J., concurring) (holding that California’s reopening procedures do not violate the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment). After the decision at the Supreme Court, the church filed an amended complaint with the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, challenging the unequal treatment of churches as compared to protests and other secular entities.

10. 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.

*Update: Motion for Temporary Restraining Order was denied by the district court. On June 18, 2020, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals denied the pastor’s motion for an injunction because the request became moot when the challenged stay-at-home orders expired.

11. Bullock v. Carney

A pastor sued the Governor of Delaware claiming that the executive orders deprive his right to freely exercise his religion. A motion for a Temporary Restraining Order was denied.

12. 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.

*Update: Although the church initially prevailed, the Oregon Supreme Court vacated the preliminary injunction in favor of the church because the lower court erred in holding that the Governor’s orders exceeded a statutory time limit.

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. 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.

*Update: Rabbi Knopfler was arrested in early May for violating the governor’s executive order. The plaintiffs asked the court for leave to file a third amended complaint on July 23, 2020.

3. 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.

*Update: DOJ intervened in the case supporting the church. The district court denied the church’s motion for a temporary restraining order on June 16, 2020. Citing the Supreme Court’s recent decision in South Bay United Pentecostal Church v. Newsom, the court found that the church had “not made a strong showing of a reasonable likelihood of success in this matter.”

4. Calvary Chapel Dayton Valley v. Sisolak

A complaint filed on May 22, 2020 in the U.S. District Court for the District of Nevada, challenging Governor’s ban on church services of more than 10 people; complaint amended May 28, 2020 (updated Phase II plan says that churches not allowed to meet with more than 50 people).

*Update: The church’s motion for a temporary restraining order and preliminary injunction was denied by the district court on June 11, 2020. The court found that the church did “not demonstrate[] a likelihood of success on its First Amendment Free Exercise claim.” The U.S. Supreme Court denied the church’s application of injunctive relief on July 24, 2020. Four Justices dissented from the denial: Justice Alito (for himself, Justice Thomas, and Justice Kavanaugh), Justice Gorsuch (for himself), and Justice Kavanaugh (for himself).

5. Calvary Chapel of Ukiah v. Newsom

Three churches in California challenged Governor Newsom’s “ban on singing and chanting activities … in places of worship while permitting the same activities in all other similarly situated indoor uses within the counties where [they] are located.”

6. Harvest Rock Church v. Newsom

Another California church challenged Governor Newsom’s restrictions on singing and chanting during worship services. The church sought a temporary restraining order to prevent the Governor from enforcing the ban. Its request was denied by the court on July 20.

** 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.

Katherine Beck Johnson, J.D. is Research Fellow for Legal and Policy Studies at Family Research Council.

Kaitlyn Shepherd is a legal intern with Policy & Government Affairs at Family Research Council.

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