January 16 is National Religious Freedom Day. For many Americans, this day carries more weight than in recent years – because of what churches have encountered this past year and the challenges ahead. Throughout the pandemic, churches across the country have sought new ways to minister and worship – from livestreaming online to holding drive-in services.
Unfortunately, as many government officials prioritized health concerns, some of them have discriminated against churches.
Calvary Chapel Dayton Valley is one of many churches that shut its doors in compliance with its governor’s orders. As the state of Nevada started to reopen, Calvary Chapel developed a comprehensive health and safety plan to reopen its doors while ensuring the health and safety of its congregants.
However, Nevada Governor Steve Sisolak restricted church gatherings to50 people while allowing casinos, restaurants, bars, and gyms to operate at half capacity. So if a casino and a church both had capacity for 2,000, the casino could entertain 1,000 gamblers while the church could only host 50 of its faithful for worship.
This was clearly discrimination.
Because of this unconstitutional treatment, ADF filed a lawsuit on behalf of Calvary Chapel. ADF asked the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit to halt this unconstitutional restriction on churches. Thankfully, the court ruled in Calvary Chapel’s favor on December 15th, 2020 – a win for religious liberty that granted all Nevadans greater access to their churches just in time for Christmas.
These restrictions are not unique to Calvary Chapel – other churches across the country have experienced similar unfair treatment. In New York, Governor Cuomo created restrictions that treated churches and synagogues worse than secular businesses, including acupuncturists and liquor stores. Thankfully, on November 25th, 2020, the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 against Governor Cuomo’s unconstitutional restrictions. Other churches have received similar victories too. Last month, the Supreme Court also ruled in favor of High Plains Harvest Church in Colorado, which was under Governor Polis’s unequal restrictions.
Churches aren’t the only faith-based communities in court right now. Religious schools have encountered unfair treatment in the midst of COVID-19 as well. In Oregon, religious schools faced harsher restrictions than public schools for holding in-person classes. ADF filed a lawsuit on behalf of Hermiston Christian School, and the governor has since changed the restrictions. In Kentucky, Governor Andy Beshear, released a similar executive order that temporarily shut down private religious schools across the state due to COVID-19 but left non-religious establishments open for business.
Sadly, the religious freedom violations we’ve seen during the past year are not unique to the pandemic. Religious liberty threats extend well beyond COVID-19 gathering restrictions.
Currently, one of the biggest threats to religious liberty is the addition of sexual orientation and gender identity (SOGI) to non-discrimination laws. For example, the Commonwealth of Virginia enacted a SOGI law in July of 2020 that forces religious organizations with biblical views on marriage and sexuality to abandon their beliefs or face fines of up to $100,000 per violation. This law is threatening churches, pregnancy care centers, Christian schools, and even creative professionals who hold to a biblical sexual ethic.
The concern about SOGI laws goes beyond Virginia. Bills like the Equality Act have been proposed at the federal level. If passed, the Equality Act would add “sexual orientation” and “gender identity” to many existing federal non-discrimination laws, and it does not include any religious exemptions.
As these issues demonstrate, some government officials are not treating religious freedom as the First Amendment requires, but rather, treating it as a second-class right. When religious liberty is disregarded, it harms people of all faith traditions. If government officials can restrict a rural church in Nevada to 50 people regardless of the church building’s size or safety precautions in place, while at the same time allowing casinos to operate at half capacity and host thousands of people, it is not just those in Nevada whose religious liberty is at stake. That issue can affect all of us.
Similarly, the result of ADF’s lawsuits to protect religious freedom in Virginia could impact religious freedom in other parts of the country as well. These infringements on religious liberty do not stop in Nevada and Virginia. These attacks can affect our freedom – both yours and mine. And it is crucial that we educate ourselves and those around us on the current religious freedom landscape.
As we celebrate Religious Freedom Day, we may ask ourselves, “Is the future of freedom bright? What is my part in securing that freedom?”
You can stand strong for religious liberty by becoming a member of ADF Church Alliance or ADF Ministry Alliance. ADF has been protecting religious liberty throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. God has guided our legal efforts the produce legal victories that freed millions of Americans from unconstitutional gathering restrictions that treated churches unequally. But there is still much to be done.
When you join ADF Church or Ministry Alliance, you become part of a greater network of like-minded ministries who are supporting ADF’s efforts to continue protecting religious freedom in these crucial lawsuits. Additionally, when you become a member, you receive access to resources to better protect your religious liberty, including access to ADF attorneys who are ready and willing to help churches and ministries have the best protections in place. Becoming a member gives you peace of mind and the ability to take a stand for religious liberty with other churches and ministries across the country.
Learn more about membership for your church or ministry by visiting the links below: