Opposing Church Closures Becomes New Religious Freedom Cause
State and local restrictions on religious gatherings, introduced as measures to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, have emerged as a top religious freedom issue and prompted a flurry of new lawsuits charging that such measures violate the First Amendment or state religious freedom statutes.
The Alliance Defending Freedom, a conservative Christian advocacy organization, filed suit in federal court Thursday against Kansas Governor Laura Kelly, arguing that her statewide shelter-in-place order discriminates against religious institutions.
On Friday, the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty filed an amicus brief in support of a church in New Mexico that is challenging the governor's order limiting religious gatherings to no more than five people.
Similar lawsuits have been filed in Florida, Mississippi, Kentucky, Virginia, California and Texas.
The cases all involve the tension between the constitutional right of Americans to the free exercise of their religion and the demonstrated need to protect public health.
The Kansas case involves two churches that have continued to hold services in defiance of an order prohibiting "gatherings of more than ten congregants or parishioners in the same building or confined or enclosed space."
The churches claim they are unfairly targeted, because restaurants and bars are exempted as long as they maintain six feet between tables and bar stools. (In some cases, state or local authorities have held that establishments serving food provide an "essential" service.)
The coronavirus is highly contagious, and people gathered in church may engage in behavior, including singing, that is especially conducive to the spread of the virus. In several instances, outbreaks have been traced to a single religious gathering.