The COVID-19 pandemic brought untold amounts of suffering and pain to our world, changing nearly every aspect of life. Churches and ministries were not immune to the trouble. Attempts to worship in person were stifled by the government, as were various forms of community outreach. We also saw churches and ministries across the country treated worse than similar organizations, businesses, and even casinos.
ADF Ministry Alliance stood up for churches and ministries so they could continue ministering during a moment in our history when people needed it the most. ADF attorneys worked tirelessly, providing legal help to more than 3,200 churches and ministries across all 50 states, literally working to keep the doors open for the spread of the Gospel.
With federal social distancing guidelines in effect and state governments issuing stay-at-home orders, ADF released a video to provide general guidance, answer some of the most common questions from ministry leaders, and offer legal help to churches.
In Washington, the governor’s initial stay-at-home order was so vague and ambiguous that it could be read to prevent church staff from gathering to record and stream online services during the pandemic. ADF sent a letter to the governor, and the state later clarified that online services were allowed.
ADF sent a demand letter regarding an order in Noble County, Indiana, that singled out churches for restrictions that did not apply to secular entities. After ADF sent a demand letter, the county did not extend its order.
ADF hosted a webinar to provide resources and encouragement during this uncertain time. Over 500 church and ministry leaders tuned in to hear CPA Mike Batts discuss the CARES Act, get legal guidance from ADF attorney Ryan Tucker, and listen to uplifting messages from Pastor Samuel Rodriguez and Dr. Ronnie Floyd.
ADF sent a letter to officials in Wilmington, North Carolina, concerning their drive-in church service ban. After receiving that letter, the city rescinded its order.
The mayor of the City of Greenville issued an executive order that banned drive-in church services but allowed drive-in restaurants to stay open. This order came days after the governor of Mississippi identified churches as an “essential business or operation.”
During a mid-week service at Temple Baptist Church, police officers issued $500 tickets to attendees who were listening to their pastor’s sermon through car radios in the church parking lot. The attendees were sitting inside their vehicles with the windows rolled up and obeying social distancing guidelines.
Governor Kelly issued an executive order that singled out churches from holding gatherings of 10 or more people while allowing numerous secular gatherings that exceeded that number, including bars, restaurants, libraries, and shopping malls.
This discriminatory order applied to churches across the state, but it was especially problematic for churches in rural areas where attendees faced challenges accessing livestream services. First Baptist Church in Dodge City and Calvary Baptist Church in Junction City are two small rural churches that chose to continue in-person services for that reason.
Both churches had implemented strict social distancing measures, stopped using bulletins and offering plates, provided hand sanitizer, and more. Even with these precautions the churches were restricted just days before Easter, despite secular gatherings taking place elsewhere.
The city of Chattanooga and its mayor amended its initial stay-at-home order to prohibit drive-in church services. The revised order stated that “drive-in services… even in their cars with the windows rolled up, for any length of time, will be considered a violation of our shelter-in-place directive.”
Like to the order in Greenville, Mississippi, this unconstitutional ban singled out churches — the restrictions did not apply to drive-in restaurants.
Since the announcement was made just days before Easter, Metro Tabernacle Church and other churches in the area were forced to cancel their drive-in Easter services because of the ban.
In Kent County, Michigan, ADF sent a letter to the local sheriff and county prosecutor regarding local deputies’ disruption of a small church’s drive-in service. Following the letter, the county backed off. The church was able to host a drive-in Easter service and has not been disrupted again.
ADF filed a lawsuit on behalf of Temple Baptist Church, asking the court to strike down the mayor’s ban on drive-in church services and bar its enforcement.
Greenville Mayor Errick Simmons announced that his order prohibiting drive-in church services would stand despite the lawsuit.
The same day, ADF filed a motion for a temporary restraining order to allow Temple Baptist Church to continue hosting drive-in services while the lawsuit continued.
The U.S. Department of Justice filed a statement of interest in support of Temple Baptist Church.
When the city of Chattanooga was unwilling to alter its discriminatory directive against drive-in church services, ADF attorneys filed a lawsuit on behalf of Metropolitan Tabernacle Church.
Even after Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt and local legislators expressed concerns with the governor’s discriminatory order, it remained in effect. As a result, ADF attorneys representing Calvary Baptist Church and First Baptist Church filed suit in federal court against Governor Kelly.
Thankfully, a district court issued the temporary restraining order that ADF attorneys requested during oral argument the previous day, allowing First Baptist Church and Calvary Baptist Church to continue hosting services with strict social distancing practices.
After the temporary restraining order was granted, the governor issued a statewide media release threatening to criminally enforce her church ban against all other churches in Kansas the following day (Sunday).
In response to the lawsuit, the Greenville City Council lifted the unconstitutional ban on drive-in church services and issued a new order allowing drive-in church services. ADF attorneys voluntarily withdrew the request for a temporary restraining order in light of the new order.
Several churches in Wake County contacted ADF with concerns about unconstitutional restrictions. The restrictions began in mid-April when officials made an amendment to the county’s COVID-19 emergency proclamation. The amendment prohibited churches from taking in person tithes and distributing communion, even if the elements were commercially prepacked and little or no person-to-person interaction took place. The amendment treated churches unfairly – the same restrictions did not apply to restaurants and food stores.
To address this issue, attorneys from ADF and Shanahan Law Group sent a letter to officials in Wake County.
The letter pointed out the unequal treatment of churches: If restaurants can hand out food and exchange money, churches should be allowed to provide prepacked communion at drive-in services and accept tithes. Within hours of receiving the letter, the county announced that churches could provide prepacked communion elements and accept tithes in person.
As part of an agreed motion, Governor Kelly agreed to fix her COVID-19 mass gathering ban that unconstitutionally targeted churches and, in the meantime, subject herself to a 14-day extension of the court-imposed temporary restraining order issued against her.
The lawsuit prompted the city of Chattanooga to drop its unconstitutional ban on drive-in church services. With Metro Tabernacle Church and others in the area permitted to host drive-in services, ADF attorneys voluntarily dismissed the federal lawsuit.
Governor Kelly issued a new order that no longer targeted churches. Under the order, churches were treated similarly to other organizations and no longer subject to discriminatory restrictions.
Some government officials are treating churches worse than other businesses in their rollout plans for reopening. ADF released a video to address questions about churches’ rights as states reopen.
With the governor’s new order in place, ADF attorneys voluntarily dismissed the lawsuit on behalf of Calvary Baptist Church and First Baptist Church.
ADF sent a letter on behalf of Victory Baptist Church to Town of Dedham officials, asking them to immediately rescind the town’s May 6th cease-and-desist order prohibiting Victory Baptist from meeting even with 10 or fewer people, a gathering size allowed under the Massachusetts governor’s COVID-19 emergency order. The church had not violated the governor’s order and it planned to implement additional precautions above and beyond what the state required.
Thankfully, after receiving the letter, the town rescinded its order.
Governor Brown issued an executive order that allowed pastors to be jailed up to 30 days and fined $1,250 for going to church with 25 other people on a Sunday morning.
ADF attorneys sent a letter on behalf of Castle view Church to Indianapolis Mayor Joseph Hogsett and the Marion County Public Health Department regarding a public health order. The order – which remained in place even after Indiana Attorney General Curtis Hill pointed out its legal and constitutional problems – allowed restaurants and shopping malls to operate at 50% capacity but limited churches from holding services with more than 25 people, even if they were outside.
Calvary Chapel Dayton Valley desires to resume in-person worship services with less than 50% of its building’s capacity. Despite the comprehensive health and safety protocols Calvary Chapel had developed, the governor’s church gathering ban threatens the church with criminal and civil penalties.
Nevada’s reopening plan allows casinos, restaurants, bars, public pools, retail stores, nail salons, and more to operate at 50% capacity, but churches continue to be limited to gatherings of less than 50 people. Because of this unequal treatment, ADF filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of Calvary Chapel Dayton Valley.
ADF attorneys filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of two Oregon churches to challenge Governor Brown’s ban that made resuming in-person services with more than 25 people illegal – potentially subjecting the churches to criminal and civil penalties – even if strict social distancing and health precautions were taken.
Governor Inslee issued guidance with restrictions on religious gatherings – churches are limited to 25% capacity or 50 individuals, whichever is less. He also described spiritual gatherings as “COVID-19 ‘super spreader’ events”.
Many secular businesses, such as restaurants, cannabis retailers, and breweries, are exempt from similar gathering restrictions.
After receiving ADF’s demand letter, officials relaxed restrictions to allow Castleview Church and other houses of worship to reopen at 50% capacity.
ADF filed a lawsuit on behalf of Christ’s Church of Mt. Spokane to challenge a provision of the Governor’s order that threatens churches with criminal and civil penalties for meeting.
Governor Brown issued new COVID-19 guidance that relaxed restrictions on church gatherings. As a result, Oregon’s public health ordinance no longer treated churches worse than secular venues such as dine-in restaurants or gyms.
ADF filed a supplemental brief in the lawsuit against Governor Steve Sisolak. ADF attorney Ryan Tucker highlighted the unequal treatment in this video – casinos were open at 50% capacity but no more than 50 people are allowed to gather to worship.
ADF filed an Amended Complaint on behalf of Christ’s Church of Mt. Spokane. The Amended Complaint added Westgate Chapel as a plaintiff, added Snohomish County Sheriff Adam Fortney as a defendant, and included gubernatorial orders and guidance issued following the original Complaint.
U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit struck down Nevada Gov. Steve Sisolak’s COVID-19 restrictions that treated churches more harshly than other venues, such as casinos.
Washington Gov. Jay Inslee updated his COVID-19 order and lifted the hard cap of 200 people for churches and other religious gatherings.
President Biden announced that he would direct OSHA to make a new “workplace safety” rule: any employer with 100 or more employees must require its employees to be vaccinated against COVID-19 or submit to weekly COVID-19 testing and masking in the workplace.
The OSHA Emergency Temporary Standard (ETS) was formally issued and was immediately challenged by numerous private employers and states. This included four cases filed by ADF on behalf of two seminaries, other non-profit and religious employers, and the Daily Wire:
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit stayed enforcement of the mandate pending briefing and expedited judicial review.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit reaffirmed its prior decision to stay enforcement of the mandate. The Court said that OSHA should “take no steps to implement or enforce the Mandate until further court order.” All pending OSHA mandate cases, including the Fifth Circuit case, were then consolidated and transferred to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit.
A three-judge panel for the Sixth Circuit lifted the stay previously issued by the Fifth Circuit that had halted enforcement of the ETS. In a separate order only days before, eight judges on the Sixth Circuit had indicated that the mandate was unlawful. The Sixth Circuit’s panel decision on December 17 prompted ADF attorneys to seek emergency relief from the U.S. Supreme Court.
The U.S. Supreme Court decided to hear challenges to OSHA’s Emergency Temporary Standard.
The U.S. Supreme Court issued a per curiam opinion (an opinion issued in the name of the whole court instead of by specific justices) halting the implementation of the ETS.
Alliance Defending Freedom sued Mayor Muriel Bowser for continuing to mandate masks at religious schools while lifting the mandate for virtually all other activities across the district, even after ADF sent her a letter on February 28 demanding that children’s mask mandate be lifted.
Mayor Bowser dropped the mask mandate that unfairly applied to religious schools. Alliance Defending Freedom voluntarily withdrew its lawsuit a few days later, but warned that if religious schools are treated unequally again, D.C. could find itself right back in court.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, we stood up for churches and ministries in the courtroom as government officials infringed on their First Amendment rights.
Alliance Defending Freedom created Ministry Alliance for times such as these. We wanted to provide affordable religious freedom legal help to better prepare and protect ministries, so your ministry can focus on what matters most: serving people and sharing the Gospel.
We serve members of ADF Ministry Alliance in four primary ways:
We’ll review your governing documents so your ministry can take advantage of the greatest religious freedom legal protections possible.
When religious freedom-related questions or threats arise, you can consult directly with an attorney.
Stay on top of trending news and laws impacting ministries with blogs, legal guides, webinars, and more.
Should your ministry ever face a religious liberty threat, we will represent your church in court, when necessary and appropriate, at no additional cost.
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