Churches in California and Minnesota, backed by a conservative legal group, filed lawsuits this week against the governors of their states challenging pandemic restrictions that they contend are violations of religious liberty.
They’re the latest in a long series of legal challenges, many of them in California, pitting religious organizations against governors. Most of the suits have been rebuffed; some have succeeded.
In Minnesota, a lawsuit was filed Thursday in federal court challenging Gov. Tim Walz’s executive orders requiring 6 feet of social distancing and the wearing of face masks at worship services.
“Gov. Walz, a former teacher, gets an F in religious liberties,” Erick Kaardal, special counsel for the Thomas More Society, said.
“Other states, including Texas, Illinois and Ohio, have excluded churches from COVID-19 mask mandates.”
Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison reiterated his defense of Walz’s order, saying it was legally and constitutionally sound.
Walz had been embroiled in a battle with Roman Catholic and Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod congregations across Minnesota over restrictions he placed on gatherings of more than 10 people.
He relented and said they could hold services at 25 percent capacity after they made it clear they planned to defy the order.
Earlier this month a pastor in Palmetto, Florida, filed a suit challenging Manatee County’s mask mandate. The Rev. Joel Tillis of Suncoast Baptist Church said the order shouldn’t extend to places of worship because it hinders prayer.
The Thomas More Society, which specializes in litigation on religious issues, filed a lawsuit on Wednesday in California Superior Court against Gov. Gavin Newsom and other officials.
It seeks to prevent the enforcement of “unconstitutional and onerous coronavirus pandemic regulations” against Grace Community Church in the Los Angeles neighborhood of Sun Valley.
The pastor, John MacArthur, has been holding services in recent weeks attended by throngs of worshippers in defiance of state and county limits on gatherings.
“We will obey God rather than men,” MacArthur said in a message to his congregation. “He will be on our side.”
MacArthur was greeted with applause on Sunday when he welcomed worshippers to his church’s “peaceful protest.”
One of the two Thomas More lawyers representing MacArthur and his church is Jenna Ellis, who also is a senior legal adviser to President Donald Trump’s reelection campaign.
“California’s edicts demanding an indefinite shutdown have gone now far past rational or reasonable and are firmly in the territory of tyranny and discrimination,” Ellis said.
“This isn’t about health. It’s about blatantly targeting churches.”
The lawsuit contends that restrictions on large gatherings should not be enforced on churches because they were not enforced on large protests following the death of George Floyd.
Officials in California say strict restrictions remain necessary in Los Angeles County and other counties that are on a state monitoring list for high rates of new infections.
Attorney General Xavier Becerra’s office referred a request for comment to Newsom’s office, as the new lawsuit addresses the governor’s executive order. Spokesmen for Newsom did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
A few California churches have defied shutdown orders, including Godspeak Calvary Chapel in Ventura County, which held indoor worship services on Sunday despite a judge’s temporary restraining order.
On Tuesday, a different judge declined a county request to order the immediate closure of the church and scheduled a hearing for Aug. 21.
Earlier this year, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld state pandemic restrictions on religious gatherings in a suit filed by South Bay United Pentecostal Church in Chula Vista, California.
Religious plaintiffs have prevailed in some litigation, however.
In June, a federal judge blocked New York state from enforcing restrictions on indoor religious gatherings to 25 percent capacity when other types of gatherings were limited to 50 percent.
The plaintiffs, represented by the Thomas More Society, were two Catholic priests from Upstate New York and three Orthodox Jewish congregants from Brooklyn.
They argued that the restrictions violated their First Amendment rights to practice their religion.
The society also claimed a victory in May when Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker withdrew certain pandemic mandates on places of worship.
In the new Minnesota case, the plaintiffs were churches in the towns of Alexandria, Buffalo and Crosby, along with their pastors.
Kaardal, the Thomas More lawyer, argued that Walz’s executive order usurped the legislature’s lawmaking powers.
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