The Trump Justice Department is pressuring Washington Gov. Jon Inslee to loosen restrictions on churches by arguing the state’s policy of allowing unlimited peaceful protests while capping houses of worship is discriminatory and likely unconstitutional.
The Department of Justice, in a June 11 Statement of Interest in a Tacoma, Wash., federal court supporting a Washington state church, argues “imposing a hard cap on all religious worship and no cap on secular gatherings constitutes unequal treatment.”
The state of Washington limits outdoor worship services to 100 people “regardless of distancing, hygiene, and other precautionary measures.” It also limits restaurants and taverns at 50 percent capacity while limiting houses of worship to 25 percent capacity, with a hard cap of 50 individuals.
“Yet, they permit protests without numerical limitation with only an unenforceable and unenforced suggestion by the Governor for ‘people to be safe for themselves and the people around them’ by ‘wearing a mask and ... distancing as much as you can,’” the brief says.
The lawsuit against the state was brought by Harborview Fellowship in Pierce County, Wash.
The federal court brief also cites Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts’ May 29 opinion that suggested churches should be treated the same as “comparable secular gatherings” of “large groups of people” in “close proximity for extended periods of time.” Although Roberts’ opinion disappointed conservatives at the time – he declined to get involved in a dispute involving a California church – the Justice Department hopes his comments about large gatherings sway the Tacoma court.
The nationwide protests against racial injustice were in their infancy when Roberts and the court considered the California case. His vote was the difference in the California church losing at the high court, 5-4.
“Washington appears to ‘exempt or treat more leniently’ precisely the types of activities that Chief Justice Roberts suggested would be appropriate comparators for religious gatherings,” the Justice Department brief says.
The Washington church “desires and intends to impose similar social distancing restrictions and hygiene procedures as those imposed by restaurants and taverns, and greater restrictions and procedures than those required of protesters,” the brief says.
The facts of the case “show that the State has imposed limits on religious activity that it has not imposed on comparable secular activities,” the brief says, calling it a “Free Exercise violation.”
U.S. Attorney Brian T. Moran of the Western District of Washington said the “ability to gather to express one’s faith and seek comfort is a fundamental right.”
“Just as we have seen peaceful protestors gathered together and exercising their First Amendment rights, so too must we protect the right of religious institutions such as churches, mosques and temples to gather together and express their faith,” Moran said in a statement.
Meanwhile, the Department of Justice sent a letter to Montgomery County, Md., officials June 10, noting that the county allowed a protest of “hundreds of persons packed into a library” yet apparently denies “similar gatherings for religious exercise.”
“The Council should ensure that it imposes no more onerous conditions on gatherings for religious exercise than it does on gatherings for other purposes,” the letter says.
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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.