On March 16, 2020, most of the United States embarked on a 15-day journey to “slow the spread” of COVID-19. Americans were encouraged to stay home, small businesses closed, and even churches went remote.
These temporary measures, and state-wide regulations that followed them, were supposed to protect the health and safety of all Americans. But things quickly took a turn.
Just 25 days after lockdowns began, Alliance Defending Freedom filed its first lawsuit on behalf of a church that was being targeted by unconstitutional COVID-19 restrictions.
Members of Temple Baptist Church were attending a Wednesday service during Holy Week—the week leading up to Easter—when eight police officers showed up and started handing out $500 fines.
The thing is, these churchgoers weren’t doing anything wrong. Like many other churches across the nation, Temple Baptist Church had found a creative way to meet while still complying with CDC guidelines: drive-in church services. Church members sat in their parked cars, with their windows rolled up and shut, while they listened to their pastor preach a sermon over their radios.
Meanwhile, just down the road, people waited in restaurant parking lots for their meals to arrive. They sat in their cars, rolled down their windows, and received hand-delivered food. Yet no police officers handed them a fine along with their meal.
The double standard was painfully obvious. And unconstitutional.
The government cannot treat churches worse than businesses or restaurants. And even a pandemic doesn’t suspend the First Amendment—including the free exercise of religion.
Unfortunately, this was just the first of several lawsuits that ADF filed in order to protect the constitutional rights of churches around the country during the COVID-19 pandemic.
In the past year, with God’s blessing, ADF has successfully defended our church and ministry clients in 17 legal matters related to COVID-19. And we’ve assisted, or equipped others to assist, over 3,200 churches and ministries on COVID-19 related issues.
This is wonderful news!
But the circumstances of the past year raise the question: When we face times of crisis in the future, how can we ensure that religious freedom is protected?
And ADF is committed to finding a solution.
In fact, ADF is working with several state legislatures to ensure that during times of crisis, religious freedom is secured. One example is the Religion Is Essential Act, which became law in Arkansas earlier this year. This Act prevents the government from singling out and closing churches and other religious organizations during a state of emergency while allowing businesses and other secular organizations to remain open. This bill makes it clear that while officials have the authority to protect health and public safety, they can’t ignore the First Amendment.
The governors of North Dakota and Ohio have also recently signed similar legislation into law in their states. And you can be assured that we’ll keep pushing for the passage of similar bills in several other states.
We hope and pray that we never again face the challenging circumstances of the past year. But if we do, ADF will be there to ensure that Americans can face it with our religious freedom intact.