All across the United States, the coronavirus epidemic has forced government leaders to grapple with difficult challenges. One central challenge facing those leaders is the challenge of protecting public health while also respecting personal freedom. If, during an epidemic, government is overly lenient in regard to gatherings and social distancing, lives may be lost that could otherwise have been saved. If government is overly strict in regard to gatherings and social distancing, it may place undue burdens on the constitutional rights of its citizens.
One example of government placing undue burdens upon constitutional rights during the epidemic is the practice of banning churches from holding parking lot services.
It is one thing to implement an across-the-board ban on public gatherings to keep the virus from spreading. It is quite another thing to ban parking lot services. First, how do parking lot services (provided that congregants remain in their vehicles) endanger public health? Second, if people are allowed to park in supermarket parking lots to buy groceries, why shouldn’t they be allowed to park in a parking lot to worship and to hear a sermon?
Churches in Kentucky and Mississippi have run into opposition from their respective governments in regard to parking lot services. Unfortunately, so have churches in Chemung County, New York. On April 10, 2020, Chemung County Executive Christopher Moss announced a ban on parking lot services. (New York voters may remember that Moss, a Republican, ran as Rob Astorino’s running mate in the 2014 gubernatorial election.) In so doing, Moss cited an executive order from Gov. Andrew Cuomo that does not specifically relate to parking lot services. New Yorkers for Constitutional Freedoms reached out to County Executive Moss right away to ask him to change course, but he hasn’t budged. Our next step was to turn to legal representation for the churches.
On April 22, 2020, First Liberty Institute (writing on behalf of three churches) sent Moss a demand letter advising him to reverse his decision or to face potential legal action. We thank FLI for its willingness to take this important case.
UPDATE: New Yorkers for Constitutional Freedoms is pleased to report good news from Chemung County. On April 23, 2020, Chemung County Executive Christopher Moss reversed course in regard to parking lot church services. In a press release, Moss said: “After meeting with several church leaders throughout the County and reviewing various social distancing guidelines issued by the State of New York, I believe parking lot church services can safely be conducted while still complying with social distancing directives ordered by the Governor.” Moss recommended that churches holding parking lot services direct vehicles to park at least six feet apart, instruct congregants to remain in their cars with the doors closed and the windows no more than half open, and use permitted sound systems or radio transmitters for preaching.
NYCF thanks County Executive Moss for revising his stance on this important issue. We also thank First Liberty Institute for its timely and effective involvement in this situation. It is possible to respect religious liberty while safeguarding public health, and we believe that County Executive Moss has now found a way to do both of those things. We recommend that churches holding parking lot services in Chemung County and elsewhere follow the reasonable guidelines set forth by County Executive Moss.
If churches in other counties find that their government officials are unwilling to allow parking lot services, we ask that those churches contact us immediately; the legal analysis provided by First Liberty Institute, as well as County Executive Moss’s April 23 press release, might guide those officials toward an appropriate response.