Courts bless churches' bid for equality
When small-business owners said it, authorities ignored them. When coronavirus skeptics said it, their fellow citizens scoffed.
Now that federal judges are saying it, however, even governors are starting to pay attention.
"There is no pandemic exception to the Constitution of the United States or the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment," U.S. District Judge James C. Dever wrote May 16.
That thunderclap came in a 22-page order barring North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper from enforcing a 10-person limit on indoor worship services.
Cooper made the rule in an effort to stop COVID-19 from spreading, but the same executive order allowed retail businesses to operate at 50% of their fire code capacity. The stark difference in treatment teed up a textbook religious-discrimination claim.
Dever followed his bold pronouncement with an equally memeworthy citation from a case decided the week prior. The 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals halted Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear's order preventing churches from holding in-person services.
"Assuming all of the same precautions are taken, why can someone safely walk down a grocery store aisle but not a pew?" the 6th Circuit's per curiam opinion states. "And why can someone safely interact with a brave deliverywoman but not with a stoic minister? The Commonwealth has no good answers. While the law may take periodic naps during a pandemic, we will not let it sleep through one."
Even as states ease travel restrictions and allow businesses to reopen with public health precautions in place, many are making the same inexplicable mistake -- treating churches like virus vectors while letting shoppers spill into big-box stores by the hundreds.
In the North Carolina case, Solicitor General Ryan Park argued that people sitting still for extended periods of time present a greater risk of coronavirus transmission than shoppers passing each other in the supermarket aisles. He couldn't cite any epidemiological studies to support the claim.
Businesses and churches alike are required to observe social distancing requirements. If preserving a 6-foot buffer vastly reduces the spread of COVID-19, it works just as well in a cathedral as in a convenience store.