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Pastors and churchgoers around the country fight back with lawsuits over trampling of freedoms

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Churchgoers across the states have grown so exasperated by the coronavirus-related restrictions being imposed on them that they’ve begun to fight back with lawsuits. At least three suits were filed this week alone — one in California, another in Kentucky and another still in Mississippi — with many more reportedly on the way.

The California suit — whose plaintiffs include three pastors and one parishioner — targets Gov. Gavin Newsom and other local/state officials over a “stay-at-home” order that the churches argue violates their First Amendment right to freedom of religion and assembly, especially in light of the waivers being granted to “favored businesses.”

The state and localities have granted sweeping exceptions to the shutdown orders for favored businesses and professions, while specifically targeting people of faith and decreeing to religious institutions that it is ‘good enough’ that they be allowed to offer streaming video services,” their attorney, Center for American Liberty CEO Harmeet Dhillon, reportedly said in a statement.

“The state does not get to dictate the method of worship to the faithful. If a Californian is able to go to Costco or the local marijuana shop or liquor store and buy goods in a responsible, socially distanced manner, then he or she must be allowed to practice their faith using the same precautions.”

The Kentucky suit meanwhile targets Gov. Andy Beshear over an in-person worship ban. The three plaintiffs — Theodore Roberts, Randall Daniel and Sally O’Boyle — claim that they received quarantine notices after worshiping at the Maryville Baptist Church in Hillview this past Sunday, and that these notices violate their constitutional rights.

“The lawsuit says Roberts, Daniel and O’Boyle ‘ensured appropriate social distancing’ and followed other steps in accordance with Centers for Disease Control guidelines, such as sitting six feet away from others and wearing masks,” Louisville station WDRB reported Wednesday.

“Moreover, the lawsuit claims no one at the service had been diagnosed with COVID-19, and there’s no evidence that anyone with the illness attended. … The suit argues there are ‘numerous exceptions’ to the state orders that aren’t being enforced, including in retail stores, factories and other places that remain open and ‘where far more people come into closer contact with less oversight.’

Maryville Baptist Church is reportedly also planning to sue over Beshear’s pre-Easter threat that anyone who attended service at the church would be identified via their license plates and then forced into quarantine.

This is outrageous discriminatory action by the governor that’s not designed to protect the health and welfare of anyone,” Liberty Counsel founder and chairman Mat Staver, an attorney representing the church, said to WDRB.

“It is arbitrary. It is unconstitutional. Simply to give someone a notice of quarantine for 14 days to prohibit them from traveling anywhere and requiring them to report to the county board of health everyday and take your temperature at the same time everyday when they absolutely have no symptoms at all.”

Last up is a suit in Mississippi involving a church that was banned from hosting drive-in church services. The difference between the California/Kentucky suits and this one, in particular, is that Mississippi’s Temple Baptist Church has the backing of the U.S. Justice Department.

“The department filed court documents in support of the Temple Baptist Church in Greenville, Mississippi, which has filed a lawsuit claiming discrimination because of restrictions that apply to churches but not businesses such as restaurants in the town,” CNN has confirmed.

“At issue are restrictions that the church says prohibit holding its services, during which a pastor broadcasts via low-power FM radio from inside an empty church to congregation members sitting in their cars in the parking lot. According to the church’s lawyers, the same rules don’t apply to a drive-in restaurant in the town.”

Inherent to all four suits — including the pending one from the Maryville Baptist Church — is a sense of discrimination, of specifically religious folks and entities being treated in a way seemingly vastly different from other entities.

It’s a sense that’s been increasing in the United States for years now but has, it would appear, suddenly been catalyzed by the coronavirus pandemic.

Vivek Saxena

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