Church leaders have a lot to sort through as states reopen.
The questions they ask themselves are not new, but the street-level application during COVID-19 times certainly makes the issues feel fresh: What does it mean to be faithful? Is my reaction based on fear or love, boldness or pride? What do the people in God’s Church need today?
Many church leaders are also trying to understand the government’s role at a time like this. They’ve never before had to close the doors of the church. They’ve never before seen church attendees fined. They’ve never before seen churches abide by the law, yet be blatantly harassed by government officials.
As an organization dedicated to keeping the doors open for the Gospel, we at Alliance Defending Freedom are working to help church leaders navigate these times. If and when churches are treated unfairly by government officials, our attorneys on the ADF Church Alliance team are advocating on behalf of religious freedom. So far, in every instance of COVID-19 related government overreach, we’ve won on behalf of the churches we represented.
The most recent of these legal matters involved a church in Dedham, Massachusetts.
Town officials had sent Victory Baptist Church a cease-and-desist letter after the church had begun advertising special, social-distancing services. But the letter forbidding the church to meet had two big problems.
The church was carefully following the guidelines laid out by the Massachusetts governor. The governor’s order restricted gatherings to 10 people or less, and the church was abiding by that restriction in the invitation it sent. The church went above and beyond compliance by shortening service times; planning infrared, non-contact temperature checks for attendees; providing gloves; and spacing chairs eight feet apart. Elderly congregants and those with underlying health conditions were asked to stay home, for the sake of their health.
Government officials have gotten this wrong in other parts of the country as well. The legal principle here has been affirmed by the Supreme Court: The government cannot treat religious organizations worse than secular organizations or businesses. A cease-and-desist letter that treats churches unequally is unconstitutional.
Thankfully, after receiving a demand letter from ADF, Dedham town officials voted to rescind their unconstitutional letter. Lord willing, Victory Baptist Church will be holding services this Sunday as they intended—lawfully and carefully—before they were threatened.
While this legal issue was cleared up in short order, this likely won’t be the last time government officials misunderstand churches’ rights.
With 50 states and plans that vary from state to state, it’s important that churches be treated fairly. As church leaders weigh decisions about reopening and even face direct threats by government officials who treat them unjustly, ADF Church Alliance will be here to serve.