How Will Courts Rule on Constitutional Challenges to Orders Affecting Churches?

Both in New York and across the nation, government restrictions on mass gatherings have dramatically impacted churches. Some churches, believing that constitutional lines have been crossed, have chosen to challenge those restrictions in court.

According to WORLD magazine, courts are “handing out mixed results to churches that challenge restrictions on worship services during the coronavirus pandemic…” In Louisiana, an executive order placing a 10-person limit on indoor church services was upheld in federal court. (Louisiana Gov. John Be Edwards later signed a new order allowing services to be held at 25% of building capacity.) A similar 10-person limit in Illinois was also upheld; the ruling is being appealed.

In North Carolina, however, a gubernatorial restriction on in-person church services was overturned by a federal judge due to “‘glaring inconsistencies’ in the order’s treatment of religious and non-religious entities.” U.S. District Judge James C. Dever III wrote: “‘Eleven men and women can stand side by side working indoors Monday through Friday at a hospital, at a plant, or at a package distribution center and be trusted to follow social distancing and hygiene guidance, but those same 11 men and women cannot be trusted to do the same when they worship inside together on Saturday or Sunday…’” Also, a federal court in Oregon placed Gov. Kate Brown’s COVID-19 emergency orders on hold because they had exceeded a 28-day limit that had been put into place by the Legislature.

Earlier this month, John Stonestreet and David Carlson of Breakpoint addressed the very real tension between government authority in a public emergency and the constitutionally-guaranteed right to the free exercise of religion:

Of course, the government is fully entitled to curtail religious freedoms in a national emergency… Dr. George clearly articulated the specific conditions under which religious freedoms might be limited by the state. First, the government must show a compelling interest when limiting full freedom of expression, such as public safety. For example, slowing the spread of COVID-19 could be deemed a compelling interest.

Second, the state cannot single out religious activities for restrictions that do not apply to other areas of life…

Third, if a compelling interest exists, the government must only curtail religious liberty in the least restrictive way possible. Any restrictions imposed cannot be more burdensome than necessary.