Over the weekend, there were a number of important developments related to coronavirus and church-state issues. Here’s a round-up:
* In Kansas, Gov. Laura Kelly (D) issued an executive order last week limiting the size of gatherings, including services at houses of worship, to 10 people. Although Kelly had originally exempted houses of worship, following a letter from Americans United CEO Rachel Laser and after learning that 25 percent of the state’s coronavirus cases had been traced back to houses of worship she revised the order to include them.
Republican legislators in the state argued that churches should be able to open for Easter services. They used a state body called the Legislative Coordinating Council to overrule her order. Kelly argued that the Council lacks the power to nullify her orders and sued. The Kansas Supreme Court, which expedited the matter, ruled in Kelly’s favor Saturday evening -- allowing her public health order to go into effect.
* A Kentucky church sued over a recommendation from Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer that houses of worship refrain from holding services on Easter. On Fire Christian Church filed the lawsuit even though Fischer’s comments didn’t take the form of an official order. (The church planned to hold drive-in services, where worshippers remained in their cars.)
U.S. District Judge Justin Walker, an appointee of President Donald Trump, ruled in the church’s favor and said Fischer had “criminalized the communal celebration of Easter.” His rather floridly written opinion also included a mini-sermon at the end.
Fischer told the Louisville Courier-Journal that his office attempted to present its side to the court but was denied.
I regret that the judge did not allow us to present evidence that would have demonstrated there has been no legal enforcement mechanism communicated," Fischer said.
The Courier-Journal also reported that some Kentucky churches insisted on holding in-person Easter services despite an order from Gov. Andy Beshear (D) limiting gatherings to a maximum of 10 people. In one case, state troopers visited the Marysville Baptist Church and left notices on the windshields of cars, asking attendees to self-quarantine for 14 days.
* Jerry Falwell Jr., who has received a barrage of criticism over his decision to partially reopen Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va., is trying to have two news media professionals who covered the matter arrested. Falwell swore out warrants for criminal trespass against a freelance photographer for The New York Times and a reporter for ProPublica. The Washington Post this morning likened Falwell to authoritarian strongmen in countries like China, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Egypt, where freedom of the press is routinely violated.
* Controversial Louisiana Pastor Tony Spell went ahead with plans to hold a large service on Easter. Spell, whose congregation is near Baton Rouge, claims that more than 1,300 people attended. Other reports put the number at a much lower 300.
* Much of the reporting about houses of worship that are violating “do-not-gather” orders has focused on conservative Christian churches that are openly defying the directives. But in New York, there have been several complaints about social distancing being ignored in ultra-Orthodox Hasidic Jewish facilities. The New York Times recently reported about efforts to bring these enclaves into compliance.
* A U.S. Department of Justice official tweeted on Saturday that the department is “monitoring govt. regulation of religious services” and will take some sort of action this week to address the issue. In a recent interview with Fox News Channel, Attorney General William Bar called some of the efforts to contain the virus “draconian.”
* Lastly, Americans United President and CEO Rachel Laser addressed some of the church-state issues raised by the pandemic in a Religion News Service column that was published Friday. She argues that government has a right to enforce rules that limit gatherings for religious and secular groups alike and warns that the pandemic should not become an excuse to direct taxpayer money to houses of worship.
“As our nation and world continue to grapple with the COVID-19 crisis in the weeks ahead, we face fear and anxiety about the health and safety of our family and friends and, for many, the loss of jobs and income,” Laser wrote. “But in the midst of dizzying uncertainty and challenge, now is the time to lean into that which we hold most dear: our loved ones, our faith and moral codes, the capacity for human compassion and the constitutional principles on which our country stands. United in these core values, we can overcome this crisis together in spirit, even if not in person.”
Americans United is monitoring developments closely and working to ensure that church-state separation continues to receive a vigorous defense during these challenging times. We appreciate your support.