Massive protests following the death of George Floyd and a resurgence in coronavirus cases have reignited the religious liberty battle over church openings.
The fight centers on what many Republican senators have termed a “double standard” upheld by some governors and mayors: an endorsement of protests, but a condemnation of people gathering in church services. And several churches are taking legal action to level the playing field.
In Massachusetts, four churches sent a letter this week to Somerville Mayor Joseph Curtatone, saying that because of the riots, they intend to reopen on Sunday in defiance of his 10-person limit. Jeremy Dys, one of the attorneys representing the churches, said that even with fears of the virus the church will take into account social distancing procedures and require those who attend to wear masks.
“If thousands of people can peacefully protest in the streets under the First Amendment, certainly churches are able to safely resume in-person religious gatherings,” he said.
These churches’ demands are similar to those of Donald Hying, bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Madison, Wisconsin, who threatened to sue last week after church gatherings were still limited “in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic and the racial injustice” of Floyd’s death. City officials changed capacity requirements several days later.
The Justice Department on Thursday commented on the issue, as it did when churches attempted to reopen during the pandemic, siding with churches that wish to hold large gatherings. In a letter sent to Montgomery County, Maryland, officials, Justice Department official Eric Dreiband warned that protesters and churchgoers must be treated equally.
“During a crisis it is important for people of faith to be able to exercise their religion,” he wrote. “Montgomery County has shown no good reason for not trusting congregants who promise to use care in worship the same way it trusts political protesters to do the same.”
In the incident Dreiband commented on, the county kept restrictions on church and other large gatherings to 10 people but allowed a rally in Floyd’s memory to which hundreds of people showed up.
Litigation over church shutdowns has been profuse during the pandemic. Alliance Defending Freedom, a nationally prominent law firm focusing on First Amendment cases, has represented 14 churches in religious liberty lawsuits and advised more than 2,500 on how to navigate restrictions during the pandemic, according to the Pew Research Center.
Likewise, the First Liberty Institute, which claims to be the largest law firm focused on religious freedom, received more than 100 requests for legal help in May, a sharp uptick from its usual traffic.
Yet while a vocal contingent of churches has pushed hard to reopen, some have been forced to close again after winning their battles with the state. In Kentucky, Clay Mill Baptist Church closed its doors this week after 18 people tested positive for the virus.
The pastor, Jeff Fugate, was one of many church leaders who in April called upon Gov. Andy Beshear to relax restrictions on in-person worship. During a Monday press conference, Beshear referenced the incident as a vindication of his position on keeping churches closed.
Mentioning how Fugate claimed that he could open safely, Beshear said, “Well, he couldn’t.”
Fugate responded in a statement, saying that the outbreak was not the fault of the church, and Beshear’s response was an example of his “bias” against people of faith.
Since March, a series of churches have sued to reopen, first seeking the right to hold drive-in services, then in-person gatherings. President Trump threw his support behind in-person services in May, threatening to “override” any governor who resisted his call. Although the White House quickly walked back the statement, many governors soon eased restrictions after urging from the Justice Department.
New Jersey on Tuesday became the last state to lift its ban on all in-person services after state lawmakers and church leaders criticized Gov. Phil Murphy for participating in Floyd protests while discouraging churches seeking to open. In reopening, Murphy said he still has serious public health concerns about church services.
“While easing the restrictions will allow for greater movement and greater flexibility, our number one concern will remain protecting public health,” he said during a press conference.
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