Pastors, Churches Sue Governors For COVID Orders They Say Violate Their Religious Liberty

An unidentified man passes the closed front doors of St. Mary's Cathedral as houses of worship closed their doors, but telecast their Sunday Easter services via social media, as large social and religious gatherings are prohibited due to shelter-in-place mandates by local and state governments on Easter Sunday, April 12, 2020 in Miami, Fla. (Carl Juste/Miami Herald/TNS)
(Carl Juste/Miami Herald/Tribune News Service via Getty Images)
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April 17, 2020 5:41 p.m.
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Churches and their leaders in states across the country are suing governors for COVID-19-inspired orders that they say are infringing on their right to worship freely. 

In Kentucky, the Maryville Baptist Church and its pastor sued Gov. Andy Beshear (D) in federal court for the “unconstitutional application of the gathering orders,” claiming he “targeted” churchgoers who gathered on Easter Sunday for the only in-person service in the state.

A few of those churchgoers filed their own lawsuit earlier in the week, after receiving notices in the mail that they need to self-quarantine for 14 days. They were identified by their license plates in the church parking lot.

In the new lawsuit, the church and pastor, Jack Roberts, expressed outrage that church gatherings were not categorized as essential services in the state, while institutions like “liquor stores” were.

“The Commonwealth found 19 categories of businesses for which large numbers of people may gather without restraint, but expressly prohibited the constitutionally protected assemblies or ‘gatherings’ of ‘faith-based’ groups,” the lawsuit said.

They seek a temporary restraining order and preliminary injunction to keep Beshear from enforcing his orders on the church gatherings.

“Governor Beshear has clearly targeted this church and violated these church members’ religious freedom,” said Liberty Counsel Founder and Chairman Mat Staver, an attorney representing the church, in a statement. “The only reason these people were given notices is because they were in a church parking lot. Had they parked in the nearby shopping center they would not have been targeted. This is clearly Gov. Andy Beshear’s discriminating against churches.” 

The members of the Maryville Baptist Church are not the only ones chafing against coronavirus restrictions. 

Over in Texas, a whole slew of pastors, churches and conservative activists are suing Gov. Greg Abbott (R) and Attorney General Ken Paxton (R) for similarly constraining their religious liberty. 

“The Texas Constitution guarantees our God-given unalienable rights to worship, to peaceably assemble, and to move about freely without unconstitutional restrictions on one’s egress and ingress,” the lawsuit, noted by a Houston Chronicle reporter, said. “None of these rights is contingent upon our health status or subject to the limitations Governor Abbott is attempting to impose on those rights.” 

Many of the same plaintiffs had previously filed a suit challenging Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo’s stay-at-home order that tagged religious services as nonessential.

In his subsequent executive order, Abbott actually reclassified church gatherings as essential, but encouraged remote services wherever possible.

Even those limitations, and the governor’s direction that in-person services be conducted in accordance with CDC guidelines, were too “draconian” for the plaintiffs. 

Similarly to the Kentucky group, they are seeking a preliminary injunction and temporary restraining order from the Travis County district court.

The fight for unfettered religious freedom amid the pandemic crept all the way up to the Kansas state legislature earlier this month, where Republicans tried to overturn Gov. Laura Kelly’s (D) order banning church gatherings over ten people just before Easter. 

Kelly got a victory on that front after she sued in state Supreme Court, allowing her order to stand for the holiday.

“I know that during difficult times like these, many Kansans turn to their faith for guidance and strength,” she said then. “That should continue — but in a way that will keep our friends and loved ones safe.”

Read the Kentucky lawsuit here:

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