By Aaron Earls
Recent court rulings and government regulations highlight the uncertainty of religious liberty protections for houses of worship.
A federal judge ruled against the state of New York’s coronavirus restrictions that limit indoor religious gatherings to 25% capacity while limiting others to 50% capacity.
Out West, however, casinos have been allowed to reopen with less restrictions than churches in Nevada, and a federal judge in California upheld a city’s policy that prevented a church from using the first floor of their building as a worship center.
New York ruling
Judge Gary Sharpe ruled the religious activities of the plaintiffs, two Roman Catholic priests and three Orthodox Jewish congregants, “will be burdened and continue to be treated less favorably than comparable secular activities.”
Christopher Ferrara, an attorney for the plaintiffs, told the AP the restrictions on the religious groups was “irrational targeting.”
He said, “The idea that houses of worship are some deadly viral vector unlike anything else is just superstition. There’s no science to support that.”
Russell Moore, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, praised the decision.
“The court was right to rule that, while the state is well within its rightful authority to maintain public health, a state cannot single out religious bodies in order to treat them the way that it does not treat non-religious gatherings or institutions of the same kind,” he said.
Judge Sharpe specifically noted both New York Governor Andrew Cuomo and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio have publicly supported mass protests that violated the health guidelines.
“Governor Cuomo and Mayor de Blasio could have just as easily discouraged protests, short of condemning their message, in the name of public health and exercised discretion to suspend enforcement for public safety reasons instead of encouraging what they knew was a flagrant disregard of the outdoor limits and social distancing rules,” he said.
Others have also pointed to cities like Chicago where two churches sued over regulations preventing them from gathering under threat of fines but where massive rallies in support of LGBTQ pride month have been allowed.
In Nevada, businesses—including Las Vegas casinos—have been allowed to reopen at 50% capacity, while religious gatherings are limited to 50 attendees.
Alliance Defending Freedom filled a lawsuit on behalf of a Nevada church over what they call a “clear (and unconstitutional) double standard.”
“The government can certainly prioritize public health and safety,” said ADF senior counsel Ryan Tucker, “but it can’t move businesses and non-religious activities to the front of the line for reopening and push churches to the back.”
In Salinas, California, the city’s dispute with the church isn’t over health and safety, but a goal to “stimulate commercial activity within the city’s downtown.”
New Harvest Christian Fellowship rented space on Main Street in Salinas for more than 25 years, until a building became available for purchase in 2018.
The church planned to hold their worship services on the first floor, despite the city claiming church leaders were aware at the time of their purchase the building wasn’t zoned for assembly and the city would oppose religious services there.
Salinas said their plans for “a special entertainment oriented mixed use district” in downtown meant the church would have to limit assemblies to the second floor and have a dedicated retail space on the ground floor.
According to the Pacific Justice Institute, which filled a lawsuit on behalf of the church, the city “permitted theaters and live entertainment venues to operate without similar restrictions.”
On May 29, Judge Susan Van Keulen ruled in favor of the city claiming the church’s knowledge of the zoning regulations at the time of purchase and the availability of another piece of property nine miles away meant the city wasn’t placing a “substantial burden” on the church’s religious liberty.
“This continues to be one of the most striking examples of unequal treatment of a church in the land use context that we have seen in the past 20 years,” said Brad Dacus, president of PJI.
“We have appealed this case to the Ninth Circuit, and we are optimistic that a different result will be reached upon review by a higher court.”
AARON EARLS (@WardrobeDoor) is online editor of Facts & Trends.