Churches: Know your rights
By Mark Lippelmann
California’s governor recently banned church services in many counties, citing health concerns due to COVID-19. But the governor simultaneously encouraged protest gatherings involving hundreds or thousands of people. By failing to apply the rules equally, the governor endangered many protesters, restricted citizens’ free exercise of religion, and overlooked the powerful role that churches can play in healing and unifying our nation. Unfortunately, California is not alone in this hypocrisy. In many places across the country, businesses and secular operations are allowed to reopen while churches are ordered to remain closed or required to follow stricter capacity limits. It is unconstitutional to treat churches worse than similar secular gatherings.
This discriminatory treatment has been occurring since the onset of the virus. Just days before Easter, police officers issued $500 fines to Christians attending a drive-in service at Temple Baptist Church in Greeneville, Mississippi. A city ordinance made drive-in church services illegal, even if the congregants remained in their own cars with the windows shut. Meanwhile, just down the road, people were allowed to enjoy meals at a drive-in restaurant.
In another display of hypocrisy, Nevada has restricted church services to less than fifty people, including staff. Meanwhile, casinos across the state can reopen at fifty-percent capacity, which is often thousands of people. Gamblers have been permitted to play cards, pass poker chips, and congregate in crowded areas, but churches cannot hold socially distanced services exceeding 50 people, regardless of the churches’ size or the number of health and safety precautions the churches put in place. There is simply no justification for this kind of unfair treatment.
Churches are not asking for special treatment; they just ask to be treated equally. We must recognize the unconstitutionality and hypocrisy of such actions by government officials and remember that religious exercise is essential.
Mark Lippelmann, senior counsel for ADF, is a key member of the Center for Christian Ministries. Since joining ADF in April 2020, he has focused on protecting the freedom of Christian ministries, schools, and churches to exercise their faith freely. Prior experience includes attorney for the U.S. Postal Service in D.C., work as a federal law clerk and an associate in private practice.