by Jorge Gomez • 6 min read
With the reopening of businesses and commercial activity well underway across America, it seems like we’ve finally overcome the toughest part of the COVID crisis.
However, many are wondering: Will there be a second wave of the virus?
In this edition, we’re taking a look at our legal team’s impressive winning streak on behalf of houses of worship during the recent health crisis and the major precedents these victories set to protect religious freedom now and in the critical months ahead.
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Undefeated Record: Nationwide Victories with Lasting Impact
Over the course of the recent pandemic, First Liberty won every legal matter filed, starting with two key triumphs in the Lone Star State:
- McKinney, TX: First Liberty Institute urged city officials to alter mandatory stay-at-home orders to apply equally to churches. Under the order at that time, churches were subject to limitations not applied to businesses and other entities. After receiving First Liberty’s letter, city officials amended their policy to allow religious services by video or teleconference, or by other means that complied with CDC guidelines.
- Frisco, TX: First Liberty sent a letter to city officials explaining that a previous stay-at-home order was inconsistent with the Constitution, federal and state law. Quickly thereafter, city officials updated their policy to allow religious services consistent with the CDC guidelines at that time and Texas Governor Greg Abbott’s Executive Order.
We achieved a crucial victory in New York, arguably the state hardest hit by the epidemic:
- Chemung County, NY: First Liberty sent the county executive a letter on behalf of three local churches (His Tabernacle, Journey Center and Pine Creek Christian Center) explaining that its previous stay-at-home policy was inconsistent with the Constitution, federal law and CDC guidelines. One day later, county officials stated they would again respect drive-in church services.
With these victories in hand, our legal team then reclaimed religious freedom for a Mississippi church targeted and prevented by a local mayor from hosting drive-in services:
- Greenville, MS: First Liberty filed a lawsuit that resulted in a victory the very same day that it was filed. The City Mayor, Errick Simmons, rescinded his order and allowed drive-in church services to operate free of government interference, provided that they continued adhering to proper CDC guidelines.
At the height of the crisis, and during one of the most important religious holidays for Christians in America, Easter Sunday, First Liberty achieved a landmark victory, what became known as “the legal shot heard ‘round the country” during the COVID crisis:
- Louisville, KY: First Liberty secured a critical victory for On Fire Christian Church after it was prevented from hosting a CDC-compliant drive-in service during Easter weekend. This critical first win became THE precedent-setting victory protecting Americans’ constitutional right to freely live out their faith during the health crisis.
This was followed by another pioneering victory that set a precedent to protect the right of churches and people of faith to resume in-person gatherings:
- Nicholasville, KY: First Liberty gained victory on behalf of Tabernacle Baptist Church challenging Governor Andy Beshear’s executive orders that prohibited in-person church services and threatened criminal penalties. A federal judge issued a decision allowing in-person religious services, as long as they complied with social distancing and hygiene guidelines.
In addition to restoring the right of churches to safely gather (both through drive-in and in-person services), First Liberty attorneys also protected the right of Americans to live out their faith at home and host one-on-one Bible study studies:
- Washington: First Liberty sought a temporary restraining order behalf of our client, Joshua Freed, against Washington Governor Jay Inslee’s restrictions that banned and made it a crime for people to even host a one-on-one Bible study or pray with a neighbor in their own front yard. Soon after our legal action, the Governor conceded that Mr. Freed could have a one-on-one Bible study and that he was not going to enforce rules against home Bible studies on a one-on-one basis.
Finally, as the nation began the process of reopening, First Liberty secured a significant win for religious institutions to safely open their doors, as many secular businesses were also doing:
- Kentucky: First Liberty intervened on behalf of our client Ken Ham, CEO of the Answers in Genesis ministry, who announced his plan to reopen the faith-based Ark Encounter museum in early June. Following President Trump’s remarks declaring houses of worship essential, Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear eased restrictions to allow attractions and museums (including the Ark) to reopen.
Your First Call and Best Hope for Victory
The battle during this pandemic is not over. In fact, in the last two weeks there have been two major federal courts of appeals decisions going opposite ways, one court saying churches can be treated as having lower protection and another opposing that and saying churches receive heightened protection under the First Amendment.
By God’s grace, we continue to be the “best hope for victory” for churches and religious communities across the country.
Whether it’s now, or in the face of a possible second wave of hostility, people of faith in our nation can, and should, make First Liberty their first call.