Judge upholds Colorado's coronavirus limits on religious gatherings

Colorado capitol Credit robert cicchetti Shutterstock The Colorado State Capitol. | robert cicchetti/Shutterstock.

A federal judge on Tuesday denied an injunction sought by a Protestant ministry against Colorado's coronavirus health orders, which limit religious gatherings to 175 persons.

Christine Arguello, a judge of the US District Court for the District of Colorado, wrote Sept. 29 that "numerous courts have considered, and persuasively rejected," arguments similar to those made by the plaintiff, Andrew Wommack Ministries, and that the suit was thus unlikely to succeed.

"Plaintiff seeks to enjoin public health laws in order to allow it to gather a large group of people during a pandemic. Granting such an injunction would present a high risk of harm to the state of Colorado as well as the public generally," Arguello concluded.

She added that "The state has the responsibility to mitigate the impact of the COVID-19 virus, which is made more difficult when case numbers increase. The relief Plaintiff requests has the potential to increase case numbers significantly, placing a high burden on the state. Further, Plaintiff would be compromising the health of the public, which could cause the death of an untold number of innocent citizens."

Liberty Counsel, which is representing the ministry, immediately appealed the ruling.

Matt Staver, founder of Liberty Counsel, commented that "The virus does not discriminate between nonreligious and religious gatherings, but Gov. Jared Polis does. There is no constitutional justification to treat nonreligious gatherings better than religious gatherings. The First Amendment gives preferential treatment to the free exercise of religion. We look forward to presenting arguments to the Court of Appeals."

Andrew Wommack Ministries was seeking relief to hold a conference meant to start Oct. 5 in Woodland Park, in Teller County about 20 miles northwest of Colorado Springs, and expected to gather at least 600 persons.

A conference held by the group at the beginning of July was linked to a Covid-19 outbreak. The outbreak consists of 24 staff who have tested positive, and 16 attendees. One attendee died, according to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.

Andrew Wommack Ministries' suit against the public health orders said they restrict its religious activites "if the number in attendance exceeds arbitrarily imposed numerical limitations and capacity limitations that are not imposed on numerous nonreligious gatherings of like kind" and impose "discriminatory and disparate prohibitions on the types of activities that AWMI may engage in at their own facilities, as the orders allow AWMI to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, house the homeless, provide other material social services and necessities of life to an unlimited number of individuals with unlimited volunteers in a single facility, but the Orders prohibit AWMI from engaging in a religious conference, ministry, event, gathering, or service with the same individuals in the same facility."

The suit also argued that religious events are treated differently from large protests: "while the Governor has unilaterally and significantly restricted the number of individuals permitted to assemble or participate in AWMI's religious activities, he has excused from such restrictions untold thousands of protesters who have gathered all throughout Colorado cities, with no social distancing, and with no threat of criminal or legal sanction."

Earlier this year the US Supreme Court, in 5-4 decisions, upheld coronavirus regulations of religious gatherings in both Nevada and California.

On July 24 it upheld Nevada's regulation that limits attendance at indoor religious services to 50 persons. Some businesses in the state, such as casinos, may admit 50% of their capacity.

Justice Samuel Alito wrote a dissent which was joined by Justices Clarence Thomas and Brett Kavanaugh, while Justice Neil Gorsuch wrote a separate dissent and Kavanaugh added his own thoughts.

Gorsuch's brief dissent observed that "this is a simple case. Under the Governor's edict, a 10- screen 'multiplex' may host 500 moviegoers at any time. A casino, too, may cater to hundreds at once, with perhaps six people huddled at each craps table here and a similar number gathered around every roulette wheel there. Large numbers and close quarters are fine in such places. But churches, synagogues, and mosques are banned from admitting more than 50 worshippers-no matter how large the building, how distant the individuals, how many wear face masks, no matter the precautions at all."

"In Nevada, it seems, it is better to be in entertainment than religion. Maybe that is nothing new. But the First Amendment prohibits such obvious discrimination against the exercise of religion. The world we inhabit today, with a pandemic upon us, poses unusual challenges. But there is no world in which the Constitution permits Nevada to favor Caesars Palace over Calvary Chapel," he wrote.

In May, the court ruled in favor of California's limits on the number of people who may attend a church service, emphasizing the need to defer to elected officials amid efforts to respond to coronavirus.

On the other hand, a US District Judge in May blocked the North Carolina governor's order limiting most church services to 10 people or fewer, saying it was a double standard to limit religious services but not similar activities under anti-coronavirus restrictions.

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