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Supreme Court of the United States

Washington State Treats Churches Worse Than Breweries and Cannabis Retailers

By Sarah Kramer posted on:
December 23, 2020

Across the country, as public officials have grappled with how to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic, some have taken their authority too far.

The First Amendment is not suspended during times of crisis. And when violations occur, Alliance Defending Freedom stands ready to defend your constitutional rights.

At times, government officials quickly course-correct after learning the unintended consequences of their orders. Some have taken prodding from ADF letters to set the record—and the law—straight.

Thankfully, ADF has successfully defended the rights of church and ministry clients in 15 cases so far. And just last week, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit delivered an encouraging ruling in an ADF case out of Nevada, where the government has treated casinos and other secular businesses more favorably than churches.

But there is still work to be done, as some government officials continue to violate the First Amendment—particularly when it comes to regulations placed on churches and other ministries.

One such example comes 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.

Who: Christ’s Church of Mt. Spokane and Westgate Chapel

Christ’s Church of Mt. Spokane doesn’t have full-time staff or the resources to record or livestream services. Westgate Chapel serves Snohomish County and has a large facility that can accommodate over 3,000 people. When Washington began to reopen in June following the first round of COVID-19 shutdowns, the churches planned to resume in-person worship services.

In preparation, 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.

What: Christ’s Church of Mt. Spokane v. Inslee

Initially, the State of Washington completely prohibited in-person worship, then limited religious gatherings to 25 percent capacity or 50 individuals, whichever was less. Since then, churches in some parts of the state have been permitted to gather 25 percent capacity or 200 individuals, whichever is less, but they are 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.

When: May 2020 - Present

In 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.

Thankfully, facing ADF’s emergency motion for relief, on December 22, 2020, Gov. Inslee lifted the hard cap of 200 people allowed to attend religious gatherings.

“There is no constitutional right to cannabis or alcohol, but there is one that protects attending worship services,” said ADF Senior Counsel Ryan Tucker. “We’re grateful the governor has acknowledged our clients’ First Amendment freedoms. Yesterday’s announcement from the governor is not only a win for Christ’s Church of Mt. Spokane and Westgate Chapel, it’s good news for all Washingtonians.”

However, the State’s 25 percent capacity restrictions remains. The lawsuit will continue to ensure that these churches are treated equally under COVID-19 restrictions, as the Constitution requires.

Where: Washington State

Christ’s Church of Mt. Spokane is located in Mead, Washington—just outside of the City of Spokane. Westgate Chapel is located in Edmonds, Washington.

Why: To ensure religious gatherings aren’t treated worse than secular gatherings

As the Supreme Court and, more recently, the 9th Circuit have ruled, the government cannot single out churches for special punishment while allowing others to have greater freedom.

“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

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.

Sarah Kramer

Sarah Kramer

Digital Content Specialist

Sarah worked as an investigative reporter before joining the Alliance Defending Freedom team.

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