SPOKANE, Wash. — A church in Washington state has filed suit against Gov. Jay Inslee to challenge his recent order limiting indoor church services to 50 people or 25% capacity, whichever is smaller. It says that the limitation is unequal as restaurants, retail stores and other locations are allowed to hold a greater capacity, and even cannabis retailers, breweries and coffee shops are deemed essential businesses.
“Regardless of the justifications the governor may think he has for this disparate treatment, they cannot survive constitutional scrutiny,” reads the lawsuit, filed by Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) on behalf of Christ’s Church of Mt. Spokane. “Under the Free Exercise Clause, a law is not generally applicable when it ‘fail[s] to prohibit nonreligious conduct that endangers’ the government’s interest ‘in a similar or greater degree’ than the prohibited religious conduct.”
It says that the church plans on resuming services — with social distancing and extensive safety requirements in place — but the State threatens violators with civil and/or criminal penalties.
“The church’s sanctuary has a capacity of approximately 110, and the church typically hosts around 60 attendees during Sunday worship services,” the legal challenge explains. “The church seeks to hold in-person services at 50% of its sanctuary’s capacity (about 55 people) while also providing for proper social distancing of at least six feet separation between families and individuals.”
It has already spaced seating out and created marked sections by household so as to keep congregants at a safe distance from each other, as seen above.
On May 27, Gov. Inslee released updated guidance on religious services as part of the “Safe Start” reopening plan, encouraging continued remote or drive-in services as church gatherings have been characterized by some as “super-spreader events.”
The document said that for those who must meet in person, however, up to 100 people could meet outside in counties deemed Phase 1. Phase 2 counties may “[h]old indoor services at a place of worship with up to 25% capacity or 50 individuals, whichever is less.” In-home services or spiritual counseling may take place with up to five attendees.
It also required all staff and congregants to wear face coverings, to avoid physical contact, to limit restroom use to two people at a time, to disinfect high-touch areas after each use, and to postpone any choir performances at this time, among other guidelines.
“As I have said before, this crisis may affect our ability to physically connect but it should not affect our power to strengthen our emotional connections,” Inslee said during a press conference and reiterated in a news release on the guidance. “I have been heartened to see the ways religious groups found to not only continue to connect, but to give back and to support their communities in this time of suffering and uncertainty.”
But Christ’s Church takes issue that secular facilities are not held to the same limitations, which amounts to disparate treatment. It notes that, according to Inslee’s reopening plan, churches cannot accommodate more than 50 people until Phase 4.
Phase 2 allows restaurants and taverns to open at 50% capacity, and Phase 3 permits movie theaters, gyms and pools to operate — with restaurants and taverns expanding capacity to 75% at that time.
“The governor has allowed restaurants and taverns, retail establishments, nail care salons, hair salons, and barber shops to reopen, but has refused to provide a similar accommodation to churches and other places of worship,” the lawsuit states, noting that included on the governor’s “essential workers” list are cannabis retailers, brewery and wine-making facilities, coffee-production facilities, and subways and metros.
“Defendants do not have a compelling reason for prohibiting Plaintiff’s in-person church services when attendees can practice adequate social distancing, especially when compared to the numerous secular activities exempted under the governor’s orders,” complaint argues. “Defendants have not selected the least restrictive means to further any purported interest.”
“Singling out churches for special punishment while allowing others to have greater freedom isn’t just illogical, it’s clearly unconstitutional,” also remarked ADF Senior Counsel Ryan Tucker, director of the ADF Center for Christian Ministries, in a statement.
“Gov. Inslee has called cannabis retailers and breweries essential but prohibits pastors from ministering in-person to their congregations — a strategy that poses obvious constitutional problems. We support government leaders’ efforts to prioritize the public’s health and safety, but people of faith should be free to assemble if other groups are free to assemble,” he said.