As readers of The Daily Citizen are aware, the U.S. Supreme Court has been busy of late blocking state COVID restrictions on churches that are stricter than what has been imposed on similarly situated secular businesses and establishments.
Not every state government has gotten the message, however. The latest example of tone deafness comes from the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, which issued new regulations in March that are being challenged in federal court by New Life South Coast Church (New Life) located in New Bedford.
New Life is suing the governor, as well as the New Bedford mayor and other officials charged with implementing the Commonwealth’s regulations.
Approximately 1,300 people attended New Life’s worship services on any given Sunday prior to the pandemic.
When the pandemic hit, New Life instituted various “best practices” designed to protect against the spread of COVID-19 among its members, including social distancing, frequent cleanings, and mask requirements. Even local health officials who were invited to critique the church’s efforts lauded them as going “above and beyond” what was necessary.
New Life has never seen an outbreak of COVID-19 result from its worship services, nor is it even aware of a single member who caught the virus at one of its services.
Then came the March 2021 order from the governor which specifically targeted houses of worship and imposed attendance restrictions that were stricter than what was imposed on restaurants, theaters, malls and other places of business. That, the church alleges, violates its First Amendment rights and ignores what the Supreme Court has been saying in cases from New York, Colorado, California and other states: churches cannot be burdened more heavily by COVID-19 restrictions than similarly situated secular activities.
But occupancy differences are not the only problem Massachusetts has created for churches. The governor’s order went even further, according to the legal complaint filed by the church with the U.S. District Court for the District of Massachusetts. It placed the following restriction on how churches conduct worship: “Places of worship shall not have communal gathering pre or post service (e.g., coffee hours or other food services).”
Anyone who has ever set foot in a church knows the value of the fellowship time that takes place before and after worship services, as people meet and greet and catch up with one another. People’s needs are met during those times. It has spiritual value. But the Commonwealth placed that restriction only on churches. No other activity or setting has a similar prohibition of “communal gatherings.”
As New Life’s complaint puts it, “The regulations make it easier to meet at Applebee’s or an AMC theater than at New Life. This cannot stand.”
First Liberty Institute represents New Life, along with the attorneys from the international law firm Jones Day.
In a press release, First Liberty Senior Counsel Jordan Pratt said, “The Governor’s and Mayor’s policies seem more calibrated to contain the free exercise of religion than the spread of COVID-19.”
Another attorney representing New Life is Andrew Beckwith, the President of Massachusetts Family Institute, a Focus on the Family ally.
“A year into the pandemic and after several Supreme Court decisions, the Governor and New Bedford officials continue to act like only secular businesses are essential. It’s past time for state and local officials to stop treating houses of worship unequally,” said Beckwith.
Hopefully, the federal courts in Massachusetts have been keeping up with what the Supreme Court has been ruling recently in other church cases related to COVID restrictions. If they have, New Life and other churches in the Commonwealth should soon see their free exercise rights restored.
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