As public officials across the country grappled with how to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic, some took their authority too far.
At times, government officials quickly course-corrected after learning the unintended consequences of their orders. Some unfortunately needed prodding from Alliance Defending Freedom letters and lawsuits to set the record—and the law—straight.
Thankfully, ADF successfully defended 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.
One such example of government overreach came out of Washington, where Governor Jay Inslee labeled church services and other religious gatherings as “COVID-19 ‘superspreader’ events,” while labeling businesses such as breweries and cannabis retailers as “essential.”
Let’s take a closer look at this case.
What are Christ's Church of Mt. Spokane and Westgate Chapel?
Christ’s Church of Mt. Spokane is a small church located in Mead, Washington—just outside the city of Spokane. Westgate Chapel, located in Edmonds, Washington, serves Snohomish County and has a large facility that can accommodate around 1,300 people.
At the time of COVID-19 lockdowns in 2020, many churches were able to continue meeting under strict local regulations by livestreaming their services online. But both Christ’s Church of Mt. Spokane and Westgate Chapel lacked the equipment and resources necessary to successfully implement radio broadcasts for drive-in services. Additionally, some of the churches’ parishioners didn’t have internet access or the ability to participate in online services.
On top of that, both churches sincerely believe that online and drive-in services do not satisfy the Bible’s requirement that churches meet in person for corporate worship. So when Washington began to reopen in June following the first round of COVID-19 shutdowns, the churches planned to resume in-person worship services.
To prepare, the churches implemented strict social distancing and health and safety protocols. They voluntarily put in place precautions including making hand sanitizer available to attendees; encouraging the use of masks; requiring all ushers greeting or directing attendees to wear face coverings; directing attendees to sanctuary seating designed to provide six feet of separation between families and individuals; and thoroughly sanitizing the sanctuary, hallways, bathrooms, and common surfaces before and after Sunday service.
But that wasn’t enough for state officials.
Initially, the State of Washington completely prohibited in-person worship, then it limited religious gatherings to 25 percent capacity or 50 individuals, whichever was less.
Eventually, churches in some parts of the state were permitted to gather at 25 percent capacity or 200 individuals, whichever was less. But they were still receiving unequal treatment compared to many secular businesses, such as restaurants, professional offices, manufacturing facilities, and even cannabis retailers.
Because of this unfair treatment, Christ’s Church of Mt. Spokane and Westgate Chapel decided to take a stand.
- May 2020: Alliance Defending Freedom filed a lawsuit on behalf of Christ’s Church of Mt. Spokane, and Westgate Chapel joined the lawsuit in June.
- December 2020: ADF filed a motion for preliminary injunction and motion to expedite. The day before the hearing, Gov. Inslee issued a new executive order, removing the hard cap on church attendance and imposing the same restrictions on religious and secular activity.
- February 2021: Due to the new executive order, the motion was withdrawn, and the case was dismissed.
“While responding to crises can be difficult, this case doesn’t need to be,” said ADF General Counsel Kristen Waggoner. “The same Washingtonians who can be trusted to comply with social-distancing and other health guidelines in secular settings can also be trusted in religious settings. The Constitution simply doesn’t permit Governor Inslee to assume the worst when people meet to worship but assume the best when those same people go to work, do some shopping, eat at a restaurant, or go about the rest of their daily lives.”
The bottom line
“There is no constitutional right to cannabis or alcohol, but there is one that protects attending worship services,” said ADF Senior Counsel Ryan Tucker in response to the governor’s decision in December 2020. “We’re grateful the governor has acknowledged our clients’ First Amendment freedoms. … [This] is not only a win for Christ’s Church of Mt. Spokane and Westgate Chapel. It’s good news for all Washingtonians.”
While we support government officials’ efforts to prioritize the public’s health and safety, they can’t treat religious gatherings worse than secular ones. That’s unfair and unconstitutional.