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How ADF Protected First Amendment Rights During COVID

Government officials have a duty to uphold the First Amendment, even during times of crisis like the COVID-19 pandemic.
Neal Hardin
Written by
Government officials have a duty to uphold the First Amendment, even during times of crisis like the COVID-19 pandemic

You could say that America wouldn’t be America without the free exercise of religion, and you would be right. 

Week in and week out, religious believers gather for worship and fellowship while carrying out the daily activities of showing love to others by meeting their needs—especially in times of distress. 

Thankfully, the First Amendment protects this essential freedom to peacefully practice our religion.

But when COVID-19 hit the United States and lockdowns began, some government officials seemed to forget this truth.

What happened to the First Amendment during the COVID-19 pandemic?

Across the country, Americans did what they could to mitigate the effects of COVID-19. Restaurants, shops, schools, and churches did their part to comply with health guidelines. Churches even found new ways to gather for worship, through streaming online services and prayer meetings or observing ordinances and sacraments while socially distanced.

But even though many places of worship went above and beyond what local health ordinances required, some government officials still imposed far stricter restrictions on places of worship than they did on restaurants, malls, gyms, bars, and even casinos, using one standard for secular institutions and another for religious ones.

Such double standards violate the First Amendment. Even when implementing measures to stop the spread of COVID-19 or other diseases, government officials still must respect the First Amendment rights of American citizens.

During the pandemic, we saw numerous instances of government officials overstepping their authority when dealing with churches and ministries. Thankfully, Alliance Defending Freedom stepped in to successfully defend the rights of church and ministry clients in 17 legal matters and assisted (or equipped others to assist) over 3,200 ministries on COVID-19-related issues.

How did ADF defend the First Amendment during the pandemic?

Alliance Defending Freedom litigated numerous cases across the country to ensure that churches, ministries, and individuals were treated fairly and their First Amendment rights were protected. Here are some examples:

Discriminatory caps on in-person church services


In June 2020, Nevada began to reopen businesses and other public and private gatherings. Even though many COVID-19 restrictions were still in place, Calvary Chapel Dayton Valley hoped to resume in-person worship services by developing a comprehensive health and safety plan.

The church’s plan included meeting at less than 50 percent of its building’s capacity, practicing social distancing, encouraging the use of face masks, and limiting services to 45 minutes.

But Nevada Gov. Steve Sisolak continued to restrict church meetings while providing exceptions for secular businesses like casinos, restaurants, bars, theme parks, and gyms.

While secular organizations could reopen at half capacity, churches faced criminal and civil penalties if they opened their doors to 50 or more attendees—no matter how large their buildings or the safety precautions in place.

Thankfully, in December 2020, ADF attorneys represented Calvary Chapel before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit, and the court ruled against the state, striking down the COVID-19 restrictions that treated churches more harshly than other venues.


A similar case arose in the state of Washington. ADF represented two churches in Washington: Christ’s Church of Mt. Spokane in Mead and Westgate Chapel in Edmonds.

Washington limited religious gatherings to 25 percent capacity or 50 individuals (although eventually the cap was raised to 200 in some parts of the state) while giving much more lenient social gathering limitations for secular businesses deemed “essential”—and that included wineries, restaurants, and breweries, and even cannabis retailers.

ADF stepped in and filed a lawsuit, and the day before the court hearing was to take place, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee issued a new executive order, removing the hard cap on church attendance and imposing the same restrictions on religious and secular activity. In response, the case was dismissed.


In Kansas, Calvary Baptist Church in Junction City and First Baptist Church in Dodge City were two small, rural churches that continued to meet in person because attendees faced challenges accessing livestream services.

The churches were located in areas that had very few COVID-19 cases. Even so, they implemented strict social distancing measures, stopped using bulletins and offering plates, provided hand sanitizer, and more.

But the governor discriminated against these small churches by limiting the number of people who could participate in religious services, even though these same restrictions did not apply to retail establishments and office buildings.

Because of this discrimination, ADF filed a lawsuit on behalf of these churches. A court granted temporary protections for them, and as a result, the governor announced a new executive order that did not specifically target churches and other religious activities for disfavored treatment.

Drive-in church services


In April 2020, Temple Baptist Church in Greenville, Mississippi found one creative way to adapt to social distancing guidelines and local “stay-at-home” orders: offer a CDC-compliant, drive-in church service for its attendees.

One Sunday, Pastor Arthur Scott preached to an empty room, as he had the previous three weeks. His congregation was in the parking lot of Temple Baptist Church, sitting in their cars listening through a low-power FM transmitter.

But during the service, eight police officers arrived and issued $500 fines to attendees, even though they were obeying social distancing guidelines and had their car windows rolled up. Even as these churchgoers were being ticketed, Greenville residents were still receiving food from a Sonic Drive-In just down the street.

That’s why ADF stepped in and filed a lawsuit on behalf of the church. The U.S. Department of Justice also filed a statement of interest in this case, supporting the rights of Temple Baptist Church.

Thankfully, within days of the lawsuit, the Greenville City Council responded by issuing a new order that lifted the ban on drive-in church services.


A similar case occurred at Metropolitan Tabernacle Church in Chattanooga, Tennessee, where the mayor banned drive-in church services just before Easter while allowing similar businesses to remain open. After the city ignored a letter from ADF, our lawsuit led the city to change its policy two weeks later.

Private education

In Oregon, the state government told Hermiston Christian School that it could reopen if it abided by health guidelines. Then, the state issued new guidelines—multiple times—that discriminated against religious education and private schools.

For example, the government allowed Hermiston Christian School to provide childcare for up to 70 children in its school facilities, but not religious instruction to the same children in the same facilities.

In addition, rather than uniformly applying health guidelines to all schools in the affected counties, the government allowed small public schools under 75 students to open while telling private schools of the same size that they must remain closed or else face 30 days of jail time or $1,250 in fines. 

After ADF intervened, Oregon Gov. Kate Brown eliminated the special exceptions that existed for public schools and allowed Christian schools like Hermiston to safely open for in-person instruction.


The First Amendment cannot be suspended because of a pandemic or other health crisis. While we can all agree that government officials have a duty to protect public health, they can’t do so in such a way that violates constitutionally protected rights like religious freedom or free speech.

ADF created its Church Alliance program to legally equip churches across the country to freely pursue their missions. This affordable membership program helps fund a team of experienced attorneys who are dedicated to serving churches on religious freedom issues. Our team offers members a variety of legal resources, reviews and provides advice on churches’ governing documents, and may even represent your church in court if necessary and appropriate. Your church can freely serve people and proclaim the truth of the Gospel in confidence, knowing it is standing on a solid legal and constitutional foundation.

Neal Hardin
Neal Hardin
Web Manager & Writer
Neal Hardin serves as Web Manager & Writer for Alliance Defending Freedom