- The Washington Times
Thursday, April 30, 2020

A Republican gubernatorial candidate in Washington is seeking a federal restraining order that would allow him to hold one-on-one Bible study classes outdoors, according to court records.

Joshua Freed, who earlier filed a lawsuit against Washington Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee on grounds the state’s coronavirus response rules violated religious liberty, asked the federal district court for a temporary restraining order Wednesday, records show.

First Liberty, a religious nonprofit legal group, joined the lawsuit and filed the TRO, according to its executive general counsel Hiram Sasser. The state attorney general has indicated it will respond, Mr. Sasser said, saying that surprised him.

“They’re going to fight it,” he said, incredulously. “So you can golf, you can fish, you can go to Wal-Mart, but you can’t stand 6 feet away from someone on your front yard and talk about the Bible. This is crazy.”

Mr. Freed had previously held a Bible study in his home and sought permission to modify it in the way outlined by Mr. Sasser.

“The purported justification for this astounding power grab is the COVID-19 pandemic, despite the fact that Mr. Freed intends to conduct his meetings consistent with CDC and applicable state and local health guidelines,” Wednesday’s motion in the Western District Court of Washington reads. “The meetings requested through the Temporary Restraining Order are to involve only a single other person meeting to pray and read Scripture with Joshua Freed.”

The Washington Attorney General’s Office declined to comment as it acts as counsel to Mr. Inslee, the defendant in Mr. Freed’s action.

The Washington case is but the latest in multiple clashes that have occurred between secular and ecclesiastical officials in the wake of shutdown orders issued in response to COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus. Since the virus first infected people in Wuhan, China, last year it has swept across the world and currently a majority of Americans live in states where governors have issued stay-at-home rules.

First Liberty took a similar litigious step in Kentucky before Easter, when it successfully sought a federal restraining order against Louisville officials who had threatened to harass worshippers at outdoor services. The organization has also defended a church in Greenville, Mississippi, and persuaded the mayor there to refrain from ticketing celebrants at drive-in ceremonies.

Mr. Sasser disputed the notion the lawsuit or the TRO motion were in any way a political stunt designed to further Mr. Freed’s campaign against Mr. Inslee in Washington’s gubernatorial contest this November.

“It’s a matter of ‘how much of my life can I reclaim?’ ” Mr. Sasser said. “The state wants to draw a very, very hard line here that is clearly unconstitutional.”

Earlier this month, Attorney General William P. Barr announced the Department of Justice would cast a jaundiced eye on any efforts by state or local authorities to curtail or prohibit religious worship.

• James Varney can be reached at jvarney@washingtontimes.com.

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