By FRC's David Closson
When the pandemic first swept across the nation this spring, state and local authorities took quick action, enacting a series of restrictions and mandates designed to protect public health and safety. With the goal of "flattening the curve," officials asked Americans to temporarily set aside some of their liberties to ensure hospitals did not exceed capacity. This included asking churches and religious organizations to suspend in-person worship services and meetings. The vast majority complied. However, as the pandemic wore on and communities began phased re-openings, it soon became clear that some local authorities were not treating churches and religious organizations fairly. As a result, some pastors began to defy what they believed were unconstitutional and overreaching mandates. As this double standard against churches has become more apparent, many churches are now winning in court.
U.S. District Court Judge Daniel Domenico has agreed with two Colorado churches, Denver Bible Church and Community Baptist Church, that the state's coronavirus restrictions limiting the churches' capacity for religious gatherings were unconstitutional. Colorado's restrictions on worship services were more restrictive than those for businesses deemed essential by the state. Judge Domenico agreed with the two churches that they should be exempt from mask-wearing requirements if they interfere with religious exercise and from any limits on indoor gatherings that do not apply to secular groups. "The Constitution does not allow the State to tell a congregation how large it can be when comparable secular gatherings are not so limited, or to tell a congregation that its reason for wishing to remove facial coverings is less important than a restaurant's or spa's," Judge Domenico explained.
According to the decision, churches must still follow social distancing protocols and other sanitation requirements. But public health orders must be applied equally to secular and religious institutions. According to Judge Domenico, who was appointed by President Trump in 2019, the First Amendment does not allow government officials to treat religious worship as less essential than other actions, nor does it allow the government to decide what aspects of a church's faith and practice are essential.
The religious freedom win in Colorado is just the latest in victories for churches and people of faith over coronavirus restrictions and mandates that unfairly target religious practice. Earlier this week, the Department of Health and Human Services' Office for Civil Rights (OCR) announced an agreement with two hospitals that had violated the rights of religious patients. In one instance, the hospital denied a patient recovering from surgery access to a priest and the sacraments. In another, a mother was told a priest could not baptize her newborn baby. As a result of the OCR's intervention, both hospitals modified their pandemic visitation policies to allow members of the clergy to minister in compassionate care situations.
While the decision by the OCR and the recent ruling in Colorado are victories for religious freedom, it is concerning that the federal government needed to intervene in the first place. The U.S. Constitution protects the right to free exercise of religion. It should shock every American that state and local authorities are applying a different standard to churches and religious organizations than the one applied to their secular counterparts. But as the percentage of Americans with a biblical worldview continues to decline and fewer people understand the central role of faith in believers' lives, we can expect more situations where religious practice will be treated unfairly. And when that happens, Americans should remind our leaders that our first freedom -- the freedom to practice our faith -- is protected by our nation's laws and is an indispensable part of who we are as a people.