The U.S. Supreme Court has on two occasions since May refused to grant churches emergency injunctions from state orders limiting large gatherings. This would seem to be a strong indication that the high court isn’t interested in short-circuiting its normal procedures to second-guess state officials’ ability to protect public health and safety during the pandemic. Nevertheless, some Christian nationalists, aided and abetted by Religious Right legal groups, keep filing lawsuits.
And they keep losing many of them. Most recently, a federal court in Connecticut ruled against three men who argued that an order issued by Gov. Ned Lamont (D) that limits attendance of places of worship to 25% of building capacity or a maximum of 100 attendees, whichever is fewer, violates their religious freedom rights.
U.S. District Judge Janet C. Hall was not persuaded by the trio’s arguments. As Howard Friedman reported on his “Religion Clause” blog, the judge held that nothing in the order impeded the men from attending religious services. She called their allegations “too vague to establish an injury-in-fact.”
Hall noted that Connecticut’s orders are similar to those in other states that have been allowed to stand by the Supreme Court. She wrote, “The challenged Executive Orders are plainly neutral, and plaintiffs have not proffered any evidence to suggest that the Governor has any animus towards religious organizations. Indeed, more severe restrictions apply to secular gatherings.”
Despite losses like these, clergy who believe their right to hold in-person worship supersedes public health won’t let up. Perhaps hoping for a better result outside of federal court, the Rev. Joel Tillis of Suncoast Baptist Church in Palmetto, Fla., is suing in state court, challenging a mask-wearing requirement in Manatee County.
During a rally announcing the lawsuit, Tillis, flanked by a cohort of anti-maskers, asserted that the county’s mask order somehow infringes on his ability to worship.
“The resolution is wrong legally,” said Tillis. “The resolution is wrong biblically. The resolution is wrong medically. The resolution is wrong, and we do not accept it under any circumstances.”
And in California, churches continue to challenge the state’s restrictions on gatherings despite a series of court rulings upholding California’s rules.
It’s worth keeping in mind that the vast majority of America’s religious leaders are doing the right thing and following public health orders. Those who are defiant tend to represent extreme fundamentalist factions; they’re the same people who have long argued that they have a right to put their interpretation of “God’s law” above secular law.
They don’t – and their refusal to behave with even a modicum of compassion and decency during this pandemic continues to put all of us at risk. That’s why Americans United has been busy urging courts not to grant demands for religious exemptions from public health orders. So far, AU’s legal team has filed 27 briefs in these cases. Read more about our work here.