Seven months into the coronavirus pandemic, religious organizations have been in the forefront of clashes over government-ordered restrictions on large gatherings aimed at curbing the spread of COVID-19 that they claim violate constitutional rights and discriminate against them.
Locally, that has ranged from churches stating they aren't following public health orders limiting indoor gatherings to 175 people to lawsuits, including one challenging the state's authority over religious groups filed by Liberty Counsel on behalf of Andrew Wommack Ministries of Woodland Park.
Nationwide, congregations and religious groups have protested rules on the size of religious gatherings, bans on singing and church choirs, prohibitions on congregating outside while allowing certain secular activities, all of which they say are discriminatory.
“The problem with these orders is they’re one-size-fits-all, and when you have Jewish synagogues and Protestant and Catholic churches and Muslim mosques, for a governor to write a single plan doesn’t respect the individuals of the places of worship or their religious beliefs,” said Mat Staver, founder and chairman of Liberty Counsel.
The Orland, Fla.-based nonprofit engages in litigation related to evangelical Christian values, and has sought to keep the state and local health departments from forcing Andrew Wommack Ministries to shut down a recent ministers conference.
While 31 states have removed restrictions, Colorado is among 20 states and the District of Columbia that still impose some type of limitations on religious-related events and operations, according to Becket Religious Liberty for All, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit law firm that defends religious-liberty cases.
As of last week, 73 lower federal court cases regarding COVID-19 restrictions on religious entities have been decided since April, along with several appellate cases, Staver said, a number that he said is
But there’s been no universal finding in legal challenges about pandemic regulations. Outcomes have been split, with cases going both ways, Staver said. In May, the U.S. Supreme Court weighed in, issuing a 5-4 ruling that rejected the South Bay United Pentecostal Church in Chula Vista, Calif., to stop the state’s order that shut down religious services
Nevertheless, Liberty Counsel has worked with some 2,000 pastors in 44 states and currently is litigating six cases.
Lawsuits seek equal treatment
While legal cases involve different situations, they all have a common thread, Staver said: nonreligious and religious gatherings not being treated equally.
States have imposed limitations on gatherings ranging from no more than 10 people to a percentage of building capacity to several hundred people.
Colorado’s current cap of 175 people for indoor gatherings includes houses of worship.
The problem, Staver said, is that some nonreligious uses that churches or religious organizations might provide are not restricted on capacity. Sheltering the homeless, feeding the hungry, offering nonreligious counseling, providing unemployment services and other “necessities of life” can occur at facilities in unlimited numbers and with social distancing practices in place.
But “as soon as an activity translates to a religious gathering — prayer, worship, Bible study, meetings, conferences — the limitations kick in,” he said.
“Why is one treated differently? The First Amendment seeks to level the playing field.”
In denying Liberty Counsel’s call for a temporary restraining order and preliminary injunction on behalf of Andrew Wommack Ministries on Sept. 30, a federal District Court judge said lifting Colorado’s 175-person limit on indoor gatherings would "present a high risk of harm to the state of Colorado as well as the public in general.”
Andrew Wommack Ministries, an evangelical Christian organization that hosts retreats, theater performances and seminars, and runs Charis Bible College, held a ministers conference Oct. 5-9 on its Woodland Park campus. At least 1,000 people attended, according to Teller County Public Health and Environment.
In a complex two-week legal tussle that began Sept. 28, Liberty Counsel lost claims of First Amendment violations and discrimination in both federal District Court and the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals. The appeals court ordered Colorado Gov. Jared Polis to respond. Then a three-judge panel on the appellate court rejected Liberty Counsel's appeal on Oct. 5, the first day of the ministers conference.
In response, Teller County and Colorado state health departments filed a new complaint in county court to order Andrew Wommack Ministries to comply with public health orders.
Liberty Counsel abruptly withdrew its federal lawsuit against Polis and local and state health departments on Oct. 8, after a federal judge said she would rule on the health departments’ call to hold the ministry in contempt of court and to prohibit future conferences.
Staver claimed that action was outside the court's jurisdiction, which led him to voluntarily dismiss Wommack’s lawsuit.
Wommack’s ministers conference continued throughout the week, while the public health departments’ lawsuit claimed the conference was in violation of state health orders and asked that it brought into compliance.
A Teller County Court judge agreed and issued a temporary restraining order on the morning of Oct. 9, which Staver said wasn’t delivered until after the conference ended at noon that day.
Staver disputes that the conference wasn’t complying with facial coverings and social distancing mandates, and said with a seating capacity of 5,100, attendees and staff were divided into groups no larger than 175 people throughout the large facility.
Public health officials pointed to a video and photos posted on social media that show conference participants appearing to not be wearing masks or social distancing.
Staver said the images are misleading; that staff were required to wear masks and guests asked to wear them, and numerous precautions were in place for social distancing, with seating in every other row in the 3,100-seat auditorium.
A preliminary injunction hearing on the health departments’ lawsuit is set for Oct. 27 in Colorado Springs.
Liberty Counsel will seek dismissal based on “a number of misrepresentations,” Staver said.
But they’ll still take up Colorado’s restrictions on gatherings, he said, broadening the complaint to include “the governor’s authority to continue to issue executive orders with no end in sight.”
“We all understand emergency executive powers, which are usually issued for a short time,” he said. “This turns the governor’s office into a monarchy, like a king.”
To follow or not to follow
Andrew Wommack Ministries also had received a cease-and-desist order the day before a weeklong family Bible conference was to end in early July. Staver said the ministry was not fined.
Public health officials blamed 40 positive COVID-19 cases and 23 probable cases on that summer conference, which Staver said could not be proven .
“Regarding enforcement actions generally, the state may get involved with local noncompliance but always starts with county collaboration, voluntary compliance and education, and only pursues additional remedies when necessary to protect public health,” a spokeswoman from the Colorado Joint Information Center said in an email.
“In those cases, the state evaluates three main factors — official complaints, local actions and the level of purposeful defiance.”
Several churches have defied state orders since March when Colorado began enacting restrictions.
Citing constitutional rights, Colorado Springs Fellowship Church remained opened at the onset of closure orders, as did Lake George Bible Church in Park County, which practiced social distancing.
The Rev. Kelly Williams, pastor of Vanguard Church, a Southern Baptist congregation in Colorado Springs, said his church has complied with the orders, After reopening, it shut down again for several weeks in July due to positive COVID-19 cases among parishioners that he said did not originate from church attendance.
He believes the governor's policies “are not for the shutting down or controlling of religious liberties, but born out of a genuine desire to protect the citizens he has a responsibility to protect.”
That being said, while Williams’ church has limited crowd size and practices social distancing, the church is breaking rank when it comes to mask wearing.
“Where at restaurants you are free to be unmasked at a table when eating, at church you have been asked to remain masked even when seated,” he said. “We have elected as a church to follow the guidelines given for restaurants, since we are in the same category.”
Williams believes churches should “voluntarily submit to government and do everything we can to model Jesus and the Gospel.”
His biggest worry is that only one-third of people who had attended churches nationwide before COVID-19 have been willing or able to return.
“The greater issue is not over government vs. church but in light of the incredible isolation that has occurred this year, how do we care for the many isolated, shell-shocked, fear-consumed and PTSD people who have been rocked hard by this?”