NC county confronted for targeting churches in COVID-19-related order
** UPDATE: Wake County announced late Friday that churches may now use prepacked communion elements and allow congregants to drop tithes and other monetary donations into boxes at drive-in church services. ADF Senior Counsel Ryan Tucker: “We commend Wake County for taking action this evening. We look forward to churches being able to conduct drive-in services with the freedom to safely serve communion and receive donations this Sunday without fear of government punishment.” **
RALEIGH, N.C. – Attorneys with Alliance Defending Freedom and Shanahan Law Group sent a letter Friday to Wake County regarding an April 15 amendment to its COVID-19 emergency proclamation that unconstitutionally treats churches and other houses of worship worse than similarly situated non-religious organizations.
The letter points out that the amendment’s bans on the distribution of communion elements and in-person collection of tithes at drive-in church services are unreasonable in light of similar exceptions for private businesses. For example, drive-in church services are not permitted to serve communion even if the elements are commercially prepacked and little or no person-to-person interaction takes place, but restaurants and food stores are under no such restrictions. Likewise, citizens are banned at such services from dropping tithes and other monetary donations into a bucket with little or no person-to-person interaction, but the exchange of cash and credit cards at businesses is not prohibited.
“The government is not being neutral toward religion when it treats religious groups and individuals worse than everyone else,” said ADF Senior Counsel Ryan Tucker. “We support the efforts of public officials to prioritize health and safety, but it is illogical and unconstitutional to apply government orders in a way that singles out churches for harsher treatment. We are asking the county to repeal its ban and avoid the need for any litigation over the matter.”
ADF and SLG attorneys sent the letter after being contacted by multiple Wake County churches concerned about the unconstitutional restrictions in the order.
“Rather than acknowledging the ability of churches to distribute communion in ways that meet the safety precautions undertaken by others, the County has outright banned a fundamental practice of the Christian faith,” the letter explains. “Under the current Order, congregants of Christian churches could attend a drive-in service where they are prohibited from receiving sanitary and safely-prepared elements for observing communion, but thereafter purchase hand-prepared food at a drive-through restaurant on the way home….”
“Similarly,” the letter adds, “there is less risk in permitting congregants to drop tithes in a bucket than there is in permitting them to hand credit cards and cash back and forth to pay for goods at the hardware store or food at a drive-through. This provision, again, targets religious organizations for disfavored treatment and is likewise unconstitutional.”
The letter points to recent guidance from the U.S. Attorney General William Barr in the context of a similar ADF legal matter that explained that “government may not impose special restrictions on religious activity that do not also apply to similar nonreligious activity.”
“While it is important to take COVID-19 seriously, a global pandemic does not erase our constitutional rights, nor does it give government officials license to discriminate against churches and other houses of worship,” said former federal prosecutor Kieran J. Shanahan, founder of Shanahan Law Group. “Wake County crossed the line by targeting faith-based organizations with restrictions beyond those placed on private businesses.”
Alliance Defending Freedom is an alliance-building, non-profit legal organization that advocates for the right of people to freely live out their faith.
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