Major Victory to Protect Easter Drive-In Services Sets Key Precedent During Pandemic

April 2, 2021
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by Liberty McArtor6 min. read + video

This weekend, as millions of Americans prepare to celebrate Easter and Passover, we’re taken back in memory to one year ago, when government officials tried to stop houses of worship across the nation from safely gathering to celebrate some of their most important religious holidays.

Amidst a wave of unconstitutional shutdowns of religious services, First Liberty secured a major victory for On Fire Christian Church in Louisville, KY. Our attorneys helped set a historic precedent in a crucial emergency injunction, at a time when thousands of houses of worship in America were facing an unprecedented crisis.

This critical first win was “the lawsuit heard across the nation” that set THE seminal precedent protecting our religious freedom moving forward, reaffirming that our constitutional rights are not suspended during a crisis or emergency.

A Stroll Down Memory Lane

At the height of the pandemic, people around the nation scrambled to protect Americans’ health while continuing with essential activities. Many aspects of our normal routines were paused.

But even in times of crisis and emergency, constitutional rights must never be placed on hold.

Several state and local governments ignored that truth. They issued irrational and unreasonable restrictions by shutting down churches everywhere…even when other establishments were deemed “essential” and allowed to operate…even when local churches were fully complying with CDC guidelines to protect the safety of their congregants.

That’s what happened to On Fire Christian Church in Louisville, days before its 2020 Easter service.

Beyond All Reason—Unconstitutional

In an effort to safely gather for worship, On Fire Christian Church implemented a creative solution shared by many churches: drive-in services. It seemed like the perfect compromise between the need for social distancing and the need for religious believers to gather—until the mayor of Louisville interfered.

On Holy Thursday, Louisville’s mayor criminalized all church Easter gatherings in the city, including drive-in church services.

First Liberty attorneys quickly intervened by filing for an emergency federal injunction, which led to then-District Court Judge Justin Walker issuing what’s been called the “legal shot heard ‘round the world.” It was the first major legal triumph defending religious liberty during the pandemic, and it came the day before Easter:

“On Holy Thursday, an American mayor criminalized the communal celebration of Easter. That sentence one that this Court never expected to see outside the pages of a dystopian novel, or perhaps the pages of The Onion. But two days ago, citing the need for social distancing during the current pandemic, Louisville’s Mayor Greg Fischer ordered Christians not to attend Sunday services, even if they remained in their cars to worship—and even though it’s Easter. The Mayor’s decision is stunning. And it is, ‘beyond all reason,’ unconstitutional.”

Judge Walker’s temporary restraining order blocked the mayor’s unconstitutional order and permitted Christians to safely celebrate Easter at churches.

After these initial battles with the city, the victory was solidified when First Liberty and our network volunteer attorneys at Wilmer Hale and Swansburg & Smith reached an agreement with the mayor of Louisville. He agreed that churches would be allowed to hold drive-in services going forward.

Now, one year later, Pastor Salvo recounts how crucial this victory was not only for his church, but for millions of other houses of worship. Watch our most recent episode of First Liberty Live! below:

Subsequent Victories

First Liberty’s win for On Fire Christian Church set the stage for many other religious liberty victories during the pandemic.

  • First Liberty secured a major victory for King James Bible Baptist Church in Greenville, MS, after the mayor tried to ban drive-in services and local police told the pastor his rights were “suspended.”
  • Officials in Chemung County, NY reversed their position and agreed they would respect CDC-compliant drive-in church services after First Liberty explained that prohibiting them was unconstitutional.
  • In Washington, D.C., First Liberty defended the right of Capitol Hill Baptist Church to hold socially distant, outdoor services, winning a major decision in federal court. In fact, this case was recently cited in a Scottish court ruling that allowed churches to reopen!
  • Following pressure from First Liberty, the U.S. Navy reversed its ban on indoor religious services for service members.

These aren’t even all the victories that followed Judge Walker’s “legal shot heard ‘round the world!” You can learn about many of our other legal triumphs here.

Triumphs All the Way to the U.S. Supreme Court

The legal battles over religious service lockdowns led to multiple important decisions from our nation’s federal courts, including the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in The Diocese of Brooklyn v. Cuomo. In that case, the Court ruled 5-4 in favor of New York’s houses of worship, stating:

“But even in a pandemic, the Constitution cannot be put away or forgotten. The restrictions at issue here, by effectively barring many from attending religious services, strike at the very heart of the First Amendment’s guarantee of religious liberty.” 

The Diocese of Brooklyn precedent caused the Supreme Court to send multiple cases back down to the lower courts to be reviewed in light of the decision.

First Liberty’s victory for On Fire Christian Church was the first major opinion and led the way to ensure that Americans’ first freedom, religious freedom, was not unconstitutionally “suspended” during a pandemic.

Now, even as the nation begins to emerge from the pandemic, First Liberty remains vigilant. We will continue to be First in the Fight to defend religious liberty for all Americans, including in times of crisis.

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