Washington governor sued over COVID-19 order that allows secular gatherings, restricts churches
June 4, 2020
SPOKANE–Alliance Defending Freedom attorneys representing a Washington church filed suit in federal court Friday, May 29, 2020, against Gov. Jay Inslee to challenge a provision of his executive order that threatens churches with criminal and civil penalties for meeting even though it designates cannabis retailers, breweries, and union operations as “essential workers.”
Christ’s Church of Mt. Spokane does not have full-time staff nor the resources to record or livestream services and is planning to resume in-person worship services on June 7 with strict social distancing and health and safety protocols. However, the governor has labeled spiritual gatherings as “COVID-19 ‘superspreader’ events,” and his ban uniquely restricts church gatherings to 50 people or 25% of church capacity, whichever is less. The lawsuit indicates that a motion for a temporary restraining order is forthcoming, which will ask the court to immediately halt enforcement of the provision.
As of May 29, Spokane County’s COVID-19 infection rate was approximately one-tenth of one percent, and the state granted the county’s application to proceed into Phase 2 of the governor’s reopening plan earlier than anticipated, acknowledging it as a relatively low-risk area. Under Inslee’s reopening plan, restaurants may operate at up to 50% capacity, but during the same phase, the plan restricts churches to 25% of their capacity or 50 people, whichever is less.
“While responding to crises can be difficult, this case doesn’t need to be,” said ADF General Counsel Kristen Waggoner. “The same Washingtonians who can be trusted to comply with social-distancing and other health guidelines in secular settings can also be trusted in religious settings. The Constitution simply doesn’t permit Gov. Inslee to assume the worst when people meet to worship but assume the best when those same people go to work, do some shopping, eat at a restaurant, or go about the rest of their daily lives.”
In preparation for resuming in-person worship services, Christ’s Church is adopting plans to follow strict social distancing and health and safety protocols. The church has voluntarily implemented precautions including making hand sanitizer available to attendees; encouraging the use of masks; requiring all ushers greeting or directing attendees to wear face coverings; directing attendees to sanctuary seating designed to provide six feet of separation between families and individuals; and thoroughly sanitizing sanctuary, hallways, bathrooms, and common surfaces before and after the Sunday service.
“Singling out churches for special punishment while allowing others to have greater freedom isn’t just illogical, it’s clearly unconstitutional,” said ADF Senior Counsel Ryan Tucker, director of the ADF Center for Christian Ministries. “Gov. Inslee has called cannabis retailers and breweries essential but prohibits pastors from ministering in-person to their congregations—a strategy that poses obvious constitutional problems. We support government leaders’ efforts to prioritize the public’s health and safety, but people of faith should be free to assemble if other groups are free to assemble.”
ADF attorneys filed Christ’s Church of Mt. Spokane v. Inslee in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Washington.