Government restrictions on churches meeting in-person during the COVID-19 pandemic likely would be upheld in court as long as they are temporary and don’t target religion, an attorney for Alliance Defending Freedom said Tuesday during a webinar.
“States certainly have the obligation – or the authority, at least – to protect the health and safety of their citizens,” Ryan Tucker, senior counsel with ADF, said during a webinar that examined how religious organizations are responding to the pandemic.
ADF has received numerous phone calls in recent weeks from pastors and church officials asking if the government can close houses of worship, Tucker said.
“We have to analyze each of those orders [and] look to see, is the church itself being targeted? Are these temporary restrictions? Are these being evenly applied?” he said.
If the order is temporary and the closures are being evenly applied, then “most often those restrictions, if challenged in court, will be upheld – at least during a national pandemic like this,” Tucker said.
The power to close churches “is not unlimited,” he emphasized.
Tucker pointed to comments made by New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, who said houses of worship that violate the city’s order to not meet in-person could be closed “permanently.” Such a statement, Tucker said, “clearly is unconstitutional.”
Tucker applauded Indiana Attorney General Curtis Hill, who opposed a county’s order banning church gatherings larger than 10 people. The county’s order didn’t apply to other large gatherings, Hill noted. Tucker also questioned Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam’s state-at-home order, which is the longest of any state’s order in the nation and runs through June 10.
“I recognize that some of [these orders] may be rescinded, they may be amended,” he said. “But … a two-week, temporary ban is certainly more palatable, if not more enforceable, than a two-month-and-beyond type restriction.”
The shorter the restriction, the “more likely” it will “withstand a challenge” in court, Tucker said.
Photo courtesy: Tim Mossholder/Unsplash
Michael Foust has covered the intersection of faith and news for 20 years. His stories have appeared in Baptist Press, Christianity Today, The Christian Post, the Leaf-Chronicle, the Toronto Star and the Knoxville News-Sentinel.