How Government Officials Are Violating Churches’ Rights With Their COVID-19 Response

Photo by Samuel Schneider on Unsplash
A global pandemic does not erase our constitutional rights.

It’s important for government officials to understand that their authority has limits, and those limits are found primarily in the original meaning of the U.S. Constitution. When those limits are ignored, we as citizens must request that courts keep government officials in check.

In the past few weeks, as officials attempt to stop the spread of COVID-19, some have overstepped their authority. At times, these officials quickly course-correct after learning the unintended consequences of their orders. Some have taken prodding from ADF letters to set the record—and the law—straight. Others continue to violate the First Amendment, particularly when it comes to regulations placed on churches.

Churches facing unjust discrimination have rightfully stood firm, reminding officials that they are bound to uphold the law of the land—the Constitution. We at ADF have had the privilege of representing several such churches in their lawsuits.

In Kansas, small rural churches and those in their congregations face challenges accessing livestream services online. As cases of the coronavirus remain low in their towns, they’ve decided to continue to meet. And they’ve been wise in their approach—maintaining social distancing standards, having hand sanitizer readily available, and ensuring that building occupancy remains low and does not cross unhealthy thresholds.

But these Kansas churches were told they must stop meeting, even though large crowds could continue gathering at office buildings and retail establishments. This is discriminatory treatment. Churches cannot be treated worse than businesses. We asked for relief from this Kansas law by filing lawsuits on behalf of two small churches: Calvary Baptist Church in Junction City and First Baptist Church in Dodge City. Fortunately, on Saturday, a court granted temporary relief as the lawsuit continues. So for now, the churches can continue with their services as planned.

In one community in Tennessee, churches have been hard at work ministering to those who have lost their homes and livelihoods to one of the worst tornadoes in recent history, which struck during the COVID-19 outbreak. In a community where crisis has been compounded by crisis, all these churches want to do is step in and help the hurting. Drive-in services are a safe way for churches to continue meeting while following recommended health guidelines. But, in Chattanooga, churches were being treated worse than businesses. The government told these churches they cannot host drive-in services, even though the Sonic down the street has been given the green light, and other retail parking lots remain packed.

After the City ignored a letter from ADF attorneys warning that its policy was unconstitutional, on Thursday ADF sued on behalf of Metropolitan Tabernacle Church so that the church can continue its CDC-compliant, drive-in services during the crisis. Late Friday night, the City agreed to reverse its discriminatory policy and permit churches to hold drive-in services.

In Mississippi, a similar discriminatory law is in place. As members of the church listened to their pastor’s sermon via their car radios—with windows rolled up and shut—police officers walked the parking lot handing out $500 tickets. The City of Greenville chose to shut down drive-in church services while allowing drive-in restaurants like Sonic and others to remain open. We filed suit on behalf of Temple Baptist Church on April 10.

We cannot allow churches to be treated worse than businesses. And times of emergency are never cause for churches to receive second-class treatment by government officials.

ADF Church Alliance has stood with these churches and others as they have advocated for religious freedom in this difficult time. If you feel called to stand with us and support churches through your generosity, we invite you to do so here.

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