- The Washington Times
Sunday, May 10, 2020

An Oklahoma mayor caved and allowed houses of worship to open in time for Mother’s Day.

A church in Kentucky won a ruling from a federal judge who said if Home Depot and Kroger, a grocery chain, could stay open under social distancing guidelines, so could Tabernacle Baptist Church in Nicholasville.

And some pastors in California have vowed to defy Gov. Gavin Newsom and reopen in time for Pentecost on May 31.

Across the country, churches are striking back at governors’ and mayors’ shutdown orders, and with the backing of Uncle Sam, they’re beginning to notch some significant legal wins.

“I will not feud with the federal government,” Breea Clark, mayor of Norman, Oklahoma, said late Friday as she reversed herself and rewrote her reopening proclamation to include churches in her first phase.

She’d previously said retailers and restaurants could open at lower capacities, but had insisted churches would remain shuttered until May 15.

But after a warning letter from U.S. Attorney Timothy Downing, she caved.

“There is no pandemic exception for civil liberties in the Constitution,” Mr. Downing said after the mayor’s reversal. “The free exercise of religion is one of our bedrock liberties and for this reason I am grateful to the mayor for allowing churches to open this Sunday.”

Last month the Justice Department also faced down officials in Greenville, Mississippi, who issued $500 citations to parishioners who showed up for drive-in services on Palm Sunday.

The department is now battling Gov. Ralph Northam, the Virginia Democrat who is defending his shutdown orders even after the orders led to a pastor being criminally cited for holding an in-person Palm Sunday service with 16 people — more than the 10-person limit Mr. Northam set for non-family gatherings.

In a court filing last week, state Attorney General Mark Herring said allowing churches to join stores and other essential services in remaining open would “seriously undermine” the governor’s attempts to control the virus. The state called the church shutdown part of a “good-faith, evidence-based” approach that did allow for drive-up services.

Lighthouse Fellowship Church in Chincoteague says it was observing social distancing during its in-person service, saying the church can seat 250 people.

The battle over religious liberty is one of the more pointed social fights of the coronavirus pandemic. At a time when many Americans say practicing their faith is more important than ever, they’re discouraged — or in some cases outright banned — from it.

U.S. Attorney General William P. Barr has told Justice Department attorneys to be on the lookout for coronavirus shutdown orders that impinge on constitutional rights, and courts have stepped in to police some of the more aggressive shutdowns.

U.S. District Judge Gregory Van Tatenhove on Friday night gave Tabernacle Baptist Church the go-ahead for a Mother’s Day service in defiance of Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear’s prohibition on in-person religious gatherings.

The governor, a Democrat, threatened criminal penalties for violating the church service ban.

“If social distancing is good enough for Home Depot and Kroger, it is good enough for in-person religious services which, unlike the foregoing, benefit from constitutional protection,” said Judge Van Tatenhove. “The Constitution will endure. It would be easy to put it on a shelf in times like this, to be pulled down and dusted off when more convenient. But that is not our tradition. Its enduring quality requires that it be respected even when it is hard.”

Last month, a federal judge issued a similar order for a church in the Louisville area.

In California, hundreds of pastors are planning to open their doors later this month regardless of Mr. Newson’s orders, according to CBN News.

Other California religious leaders are heading to court.

A Pentecostal Church bishop and a rabbi in San Diego filed a lawsuit late last week saying that since the Democrat has declared the state ready for “Stage 2” of its reopening for shopping malls, business offices, car washes, pet grooming and even schools, religious organizations should be part of that.

Instead, they’re shunted back to “Stage 3” of the governor’s plans, along with tattoo parlors, gyms, bars and movie theaters.

“It is time,” they wrote in their lawsuit. “California is one of only eight states whose response to the COVID-19 pandemic has included no accommodation for — hardly even a mention of — the religious rights of its citizens.”

Washington state officials already folded in a federal court challenge of extending Gov. Jay Inslee’s ban on church services, including one-on-one Bible study classes.

Joshua Freed, a Republican candidate for governor, had filed motions arguing the ban on his proposal for outdoor Bible study session infringed on First Amendment rights.

Ms. Clark, the Norman mayor, relented once the Justice Department signaled its interest in her shutdown proclamation.

She had laid out phases of reopening, with restaurants, retail stores, gyms, sports playing fields and pet grooming operations allowed to open now, though churches and other houses of worship must remain closed until May 15.

Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter took to Twitter last week to urge the mayor to rethink her ban.

Ms. Clark complained — also on Twitter — that he should have just picked up the phone to call her.

But she didn’t seem open to an accommodation at the time, saying the reverend at her church supported her decision.

The city issued a statement rebuffing Mr. Hunter’s complaints, too.

“The city understands the importance of its citizen’s[sic.] rights to exercise their religious and non-religious beliefs freely and to assemble peaceably. However, constitutional rights have never been absolute,” the city said. “Rather, they are subject to a balancing test with state interest.”

The city cited a 1944 Supreme Court ruling that held the right to practice religion “does not include liberty to expose the community … to a communicable disease or the latter to ill health or death.”

That case dealt with a parent’s ability to cite religion as a reason to avoid compulsory vaccination.

But a day after that statement, Ms. Clark took to Facebook to reverse herself — though she signaled that she was not convinced by the arguments, but rather didn’t want the fight.

She suggested there was a tension between “the ideals this nation was founded on” and “science.”

“Foundational principles of this country are always to be respected. But the struggles this pandemic has created cannot be ignored,” she said.

She added: “Many people have been referring to the Constitution as of late. I have as well — specifically the preamble and the part about promoting the general welfare.”

• Stephen Dinan can be reached at sdinan@washingtontimes.com.

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

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