Frustrated religious observers may not wait much longer before challenging the legality of social distancing guidelines that interrupted services during Holy Week and Passover.
The Christian nonprofit law firm Alliance Defending Freedom took legal action against local governments in Greenville, Mississippi, and Charlotte, North Carolina, and is counseling other religious nonprofits on how to deal with governments amid the coronavirus outbreak.
Ryan Tucker, the director of the ADF Center for Christian Ministries, said the coronavirus-related restrictions have broken new ground for everyone. He told religious organizations and groups on a webinar that he thought two-week temporary bans stood a better chance of surviving legal challenges than governments enforcing longer restrictions extending beyond two months.
“This is a growing issue,” Mr. Tucker said. “We are aware of that, and we are looking into each and every situation.”
In Greenville, police officers issued $500 tickets this month to churchgoers who stayed in their cars with their windows rolled up while listening to an FM radio station broadcast a sermon and music. The church contends its congregation was following the orders imposed by Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves and Greenville Mayor Errick Simmons.
The Alliance Defending Freedom filed a lawsuit requesting a federal court enact a temporary restraining order and permanent injunction against Greenville from enforcing the church closure order.
“If [government] allows waiting in the car at Sonic, it should permit a drive-thru Easter service,” tweeted Kristen Waggoner, ADF counsel for Temple Baptist Church, about the city’s action. “Safety is critical. So is following the Constitution. First Amendment isn’t completely suspended nor does [government] have unlimited authority to target churches however they please. There are limits.”
Mr. Simmons said Friday afternoon that he had not received the lawsuit, but the intent of the city’s order was to save lives, not infringe upon religious liberty.
“Of course this is no infringement on the right to religion, the right to worship, although it impacts our traditional way of gathering to worship, it does not prevent us from worshiping,” Mr. Simmons said. “We need our pastors and our worship leaders to be creative during this unprecedented time and a lot of churches are doing that.”
The mayor said he presumed police officers who spotted parking lots with 30 or 40 cars thought the drivers were violating the governments’ orders. He said he thought that was what happened with Temple Baptist Church, and added that someone also called the city about the gathering.
ADF is also prepared to file a lawsuit in the next few days against Charlotte if the government there does not drop criminal charges against Christian activists who were arrested while gathered in prayer outside an abortion clinic this month.
David Benham, president of the pro-life nonprofit Cities4Life, posted on social media a video of his arrest on Saturday after he was praying with other activists outside A Preferred Women’s Health Center of Charlotte. Mr. Benham has maintained that he complied with various emergency orders and proclamations while praying outside the facility with a handful of fellow pro-life activists.
“My desire is simply to do what I am legally permitted to do under the emergency orders that are in place, and that’s what I and the others have taken great care to do,” Mr. Benham said in a statement. “It makes no sense that someone can walk or ride a bike down a sidewalk, but a person can’t walk and pray there. It makes no sense that an abortion business can stay open to offer purely elective abortions during the COVID-19 pandemic but social service charity volunteers can’t pray and offer material support outside while obeying the emergency order and proclamation.”
Alliance Defending Freedom said it has received hundreds of inquiries about restrictions on gatherings and it is encouraging those encountering restrictions on their faith-based actions and worship services as a result of governments’ response to coronavirus to report the alleged violations on ADF’s website. The group also has created information about how religious groups affected by coronavirus may benefit from relief packages passed by Congress.