Since March, Americans have faced various challenges related to COVID-19.
Many have been furloughed or lost jobs. Others are adjusting to working from home while children try to finish their school year from a distance. And small businesses, restaurants, and even churches have had to make significant adjustments to their routines.
But while many aspects of our lives may have temporarily changed, our constitutional rights have not.
Government officials still have a duty to protect the First Amendment rights of their citizens when implementing measures to stop the spread of COVID-19. In particular, they should not apply stricter guidelines to churches than they do to similarly situated businesses. Unfortunately, we’ve seen several instances where government officials overstepped their authority when dealing with churches and ministries.
Thankfully, the ADF Church Alliance has responded to these First Amendment violations—and achieved important victories:
- Temple Baptist Church: Greenville, Mississippi – The city of Greenville, Mississippi issued , an executive order that banned drive-in church services, despite the governor’s order allowing such services to continue. Attendees of a drive-in Holy Week service at Temple Baptist Church were slapped with $500 fines! Thankfully, ADF attorneys filed a lawsuit against the city and the City Council responded by waiving the fines, issuing a new order, and lifting the ban on drive-in church services.
- Metropolitan Tabernacle Church: Chattanooga, Tennessee – While Chattanooga’s stay-at-home order originally didn’t ban drive-in churches, the city’s mayor added a ban shortly before Easter. ADF filed a lawsuit on behalf of Metropolitan Tabernacle Church, and city officials have now reversed the order.
- First Baptist Church and Calvary Baptist Church in Kansas – Two small, rural churches in Kansas faced many challenges in livestreaming church services. The churches are located in areas that had very few COVID-19 cases, so under the circumstances they decided to meet in-person with rigorous social distancing and safety precautions. But Kansas’s governor prohibited these services—even though these same restrictions were not applied to retail establishments and office buildings. ADF stepped in and filed a lawsuit. A court granted temporary protections for these churches, and on April 30, the governor announced a new executive order that does not treat religious groups unfairly.
- Churches in Wake County, North Carolina – Wake County, North Carolina allowed secular businesses like drive-thru restaurants to remain open and operate unhindered, but the county made it illegal for churches to collect in-person tithes and distribute prepackaged communion elements at their drive-in services. ADF attorneys sent a demand letter to the county. The county responded by allowing churches to use prepackaged communion and permitting congregants to drop off tithes.
ADF attorneys have also stepped in to protect the free speech rights of pro-life advocates standing outside of abortion facilities. In March, David Benham was arrested in Charlotte, North Carolina for allegedly violating the state’s stay-at-home order by sidewalk counseling outside of a Planned Parenthood—even though they were following all the proper guidelines. ADF attorneys sent a demand letter to the city on behalf of David Benham and have now filed a lawsuit on behalf of his pro-life organization and another one.
Currently, many states and local governments are beginning to reopen businesses from the shutdown after the White House issued guidelines for doing so.
But every state is different, and it’s important to know your rights.
Do you have questions or concerns about actions being taken in your city or state? Please visit our COVID-19 resource page to find out more, submit a question, request legal help, or download our COVID-19 Reopening Resource.
During times of crisis, we must come together to support the common good. But we must also remain alert to ensure that our constitutional rights are not violated. As founding father Thomas Jefferson said, “Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.”
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