COVID-19 has presented frightening times for many. People are afraid for their health, for their jobs, for their families, and more. Here at ADF, we have remained steadfast in prayer for everyone who has been harmed by the coronavirus pandemic.
For some people of faith, the common fears of the pandemic have been compounded by uncommon, frightening moments.
Imagine being a Christian at Temple Baptist Church in Mississippi, lawfully sitting in your car for a drive-in service during Holy Week, when numerous police cars circle your parking lot. They approach your car window, in the middle of the service, and issue you a $500 fine.
Or put yourself in the shoes of North Carolina pro-life leader David Benham. While providing free resources to help abortion-minded women on a public sidewalk outside an abortion facility, you’re arrested. You carefully followed every social distancing requirement, but the authorities don’t care. Handcuffed, you slowly walk to the cop car with tears in your eyes as you’re taken to jail. . . even though you didn’t break any law.
Fortunately, ADF has been able to help these Christians and many more by defending their freedom.
The governor of Washington’s stay-at-home order was so vague and ambiguous that it could have been read to prevent just a handful of church staff members from gathering to record and stream online services during the pandemic. We sent a letter to the governor, and the state later issued guidance clarifying that online services were allowed.
Governor Laura Kelly issued an executive order during Holy Week prohibiting “mass gatherings” of more than ten people. The order had over two dozen exceptions, including retail establishments, offices, and bars . . . but not churches. In fact, the order explicitly prohibited “churches and other religious services or activities” from having the same freedom as bars and other secular establishments.
First Baptist Church and Calvary Baptist Church are small churches located in rural areas where they were unable to rely on livestream services and where there were hardly any COVID-19 cases. These churches had been gathering in small groups while observing strict social distancing and health protocols. But the governor’s order shut the door on that—right before Easter!
Fortunately, ADF stepped in to represent the churches, allowing them to gather for worship, and securing their right to be treated no worse than secular establishments.
After holding livestream services for several weeks, Metro Tabernacle Church began planning an Easter Sunday drive-in church service to bring their community together while still following social distancing guidelines. But just days before Easter, the mayor abruptly changed his “stay-at home” order, specifically banning drive-in church services. People could sit in their cars at the Sonic Drive-In down the street to enjoy soda and cheeseburgers . . . yet the same number of cars could not gather in a church parking lot to celebrate what many Christians consider the most holy day of the year.
ADF filed a lawsuit on behalf of Metro Tabernacle Church. And while the mayor’s actions sadly prevented the church from gathering on Easter Sunday, the mayor revised his policy to allow drive-in services the next week.
During Holy Week, police cars entered the parking lot of Temple Baptist Church in the middle of a Wednesday night drive-in service. The officers then began to issue $500 fines to churchgoers sitting in their cars while listening to Pastor Arthur Scott, who was preaching inside, over the radio.
After ADF got involved, the city canceled these fines but refused to revise its unconstitutional policy banning drive-in services—a policy that directly contradicted the Alabama governor’s executive order. After ADF filed a lawsuit, U.S. Attorney General William Barr and the Department of Justice filed a statement of interest in the case supporting Temple Baptist Church.
Realizing that it would not win this lawsuit, the city of Greenville revised its order on April 21 to allow drive-in church services—another great victory for churches and for the Constitution!
In Wake County, like most of the country, restaurants can sell food while adhering to certain social distancing regulations. But churches were explicitly banned from the nearly identical actions of receiving in-person tithes and distributing communion.
After several churches in the area contacted ADF, our attorneys sent the county a demand letter explaining how its policy was unconstitutional. Thankfully, the county responded by revising its policies. The new policies treat churches fairly by allowing them to accept tithes and distribute prepacked communion while adhering to the other social distancing requirements.
ADF has also filed two lawsuits in North Carolina on behalf of pro-life sidewalk counselors—including David Benham—who were helping pregnant women. Even though they followed all the local social distancing requirements, these pro-life advocates were cited and arrested. We are hopeful that with God’s help, we will see additional victories in these cases as well.
The COVID-19 pandemic has presented unfamiliar situations for many people, including government officials. And while many actions to protect public health have been necessary, that does not erase our constitutional rights. ADF stands at the ready to work with government officials to uphold our rights during these challenging times. But when government officials double down on their unconstitutional policies, legal action needs to be taken.
As the economy gradually begins to reopen, ADF will continue to monitor regulations across the country to ensure that the rights of churches and religious ministries are protected.