Nondenominational congregations — including many Baptist churches — account for the majority of the two-dozen lawsuits filed around the U.S. seeking a return to in-person worship during the coronavirus pandemic.
Roman Catholic and mainline Protestant plaintiffs are noticeably absent from legal challenges filed in federal and state courthouses from Virginia’s coast to eastern Oregon, an analysis of lawsuits by The Washington Times shows.
The distinction is not lost on Douglas M. Strong, dean of the School of Theology and professor of the history of Christianity at Seattle Pacific University.
“I think the divide in the U.S. churches and how they’re responding to the reopening reflects the bifurcation and the divide that we see in American culture and politics and even religion more broadly,” Mr. Strong told The Washington Times. “It is true that nondenominational churches theologically and politically tend to be more conservative.”
Leaders of the United Methodist Church, the Presbyterian Church (USA) and even the Southern Baptist Convention have exercised caution about church gatherings. Independent churches, however, have been the most vocal opponents to shutdowns of in-person worship.
Backed by religious liberty law firms such as Becket, the Alliance Defending Freedom and First Liberty, congregations with as few as 80 members in rural Illinois to a megachurch with campuses spread across New Mexico and northern Texas have sued with varying degrees of success.
Independent Baptist churches have been particularly active, rooted in fidelity to the King James Version (KJV) of the Bible and broadly grouped as “fundamentalists.”
“Oftentimes these churches are very closely aligned to a political vision that emphasizes individual liberty, strong patriotism, freedom and America being a ‘city on the hill,’” said Jeffrey W. Barbeau, professor of theology at Wheaton College. “Even though a mainline church might say that the practice of our faith is one of the most important parts of our faith that we cherish in America, we believe that care for others may actually trump our individual liberties … and they’ll opt-out, at least temporarily.”
A spate of lawsuits alleging a violation of the First Amendment right of religious practice emerged from several unaffiliated Baptist churches in April against governors’ and mayors’ orders in Southern states such as Louisiana, Mississippi and Kentucky.
Last Friday, a federal judge ruled against Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear’s social distancing order, saying that if people can congregate at a Home Depot, they can do so in a church. The independent Tabernacle Baptist Church Inc. of Nicholasville had argued that online and drive-in services “do not meet the Lord’s requirement that the church meet together in person for corporate worship.”
“As a legal matter, those rights [religious freedom] are not absolute,” said Luke Goodrich, vice president and senior counsel at Becket. “Just like freedom of speech doesn’t mean you can spread defamatory lies about your neighbors, the freedom of religion doesn’t mean you can spread a dangerous virus to your neighbors.”
But some states, Mr. Goodrich says, are not uniformly applying restrictions against religious and non-religious assemblies, leading to the surge of lawsuits and the feeling among some that religion is being singled out.
The last two weeks has seen a jump in lawsuits from across the country, as well as an expansion in the types of denominations. In Oregon last week, nearly a dozen parties — including congregants of a rural Presbyterian church — challenged Gov. Kate Brown’s stay-at-home order, on religious freedom grounds.
A Lutheran minister of the Missouri Synod in Idaho also joined plaintiffs suing Gov. Brad Little and the Director of the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare, saying the threat of criminal sanctions for “faith-based” gatherings while allowing for delivery by Grubhub suggest the Republican governor has engaged in “targeted discrimination” of Christianity.
This week, Word of Faith churches — a charismatic sect — in Michigan joined similar churches in California who filed a lawsuit last month against stay-at-home orders.
“Allowing one person to wield absolute power is not a republican form of government, it is tyranny,” said the lawsuit, filed by Northern Michigan Baptist Bible Church, Word of Faith Christian Center, and Whole Life Church, as well as individuals, against Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer.
One group yet to join any lawsuits is the Roman Catholic Church. While a small group of conservative Catholics last month urged bishops to “restore the Sacraments,” dioceses have stayed relatively patient at returning to face-to-face worship.
On April 30, the U.S. bishops conference sent recommendations to Catholic prelates proposing guidelines for returning to Mass, including limiting groups to 10 or fewer congregants.
“COVID-19 takes no prisoners,” said Father Gregory Sakowicz, rector of Holy Name Cathedral in Chicago. “It involves every human being of every religious denomination.”
Father Sakowicz says his parish has taken small steps to return to a degree of normality. When they do, he said, “It’s not going to be business-as-usual and flip the lights on. There will be a whole new set of norms about how we come back to church.”
Mainline Protestants have largely mirrored the Catholics’ reaction to COVID-19, as infections continue to rise across the nation.
A document titled “Consideration for Returning to In-person Worship” by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America notes that for most churches, “it will not be safe or advisable to gather for in-person worship for some time.”
In an address on COVID-19, the Most Rev. Michael B. Curry, presiding bishop of the Episcopal church, urged congregants to rely on “God’s rubric of love” to find a “new normal.”
“I’ve seen it, even when public health concerns supersede all other considerations, including in-person worship,” said Bishop Curry, listing off online Bible studies and socially-distant soup kitchens.
But while many of the mainline churches have stayed out of courthouses, and sanctuaries, they haven’t stayed on the sidelines. In fact, for more traditional denominations, with a historical emphasis on social outreach, the novel coronavirus has demonstrated their commitment to churchly mission.
“They’re on the frontline of the caregiving that our communities need,” Mr. Barbeau said. “For people who would be hesitant to embrace the role of the church in the community they need to look again at the way that personal needs, physical but more emotional, are being dealt with by our pastors and people of faith.”