The U.S. Department of Justice is pressuring Washington Gov. Jon Inslee to loosen restrictions on churches. It argues that the mandate against worship services is discriminatory since the state has allowed numerous large protests to fight racial inequality.
On June 11, the Department of Justice issued a State of Interest in support of a Washington church. It argued that “imposing a hard cap on all religious worship and no cap on secular gatherings constitutes unequal treatment.”
Currently, the state limits outdoor services to 100 people despite social distancing and other precautionary measures. It also limits indoor worship to 25% capacity, with a hard cap of 50 parishioners. These restrictions are far greater than those placed on protests comprised of thousands of people.
The lawsuit filed by Harborview Fellowship in Pierce County, WA points out the discriminatory and possible unconstitutional actions of the state.
“[The state] permit protests without numerical limitation with only an unenforceable and unenforced suggestion by the Governor for ‘people to be safe for themselves and the people around them’ by ‘wearing a mask and… distancing as much as you can.'”
On May 29, conservative Chief Justice John Roberts sided with more liberal judges. He suggested that churches should be treated the same as “comparable secular gatherings.”
The Supreme Court’s decision said that retail stores were “transitory establishments” in which people would come and go. Churches were different. People would sit and congregate for longer periods of time.
Although Robert’s vote disappointed conservatives, the Justice Department hopes his comments about large gatherings can convince the Tacoma court. The protests comprise larger crowds for periods of time much longer than the average church service.
“Washington appears to ‘exempt or treat more leniently’ precisely the types of activities that Chief Justice Roberts suggested would be appropriate comparators for religious gatherings,” the DOJ brief reads.
“[The Washington church] desires and intends to impose similar social distancing restrictions and hygiene procedures as those imposed by restaurants and taverns, and greater restrictions and procedures than those required of protesters,” the brief adds.
U.S. Attorney Brian T. Moran said the “ability to gather to express one’s faith and seek comfort is a fundamental right.”
“Just as we have seen peaceful protestors gathered together and exercising their First Amendment rights, so too must we protect the right of religious institutions. Churches, mosques, and temples [should be able] to gather together and express their faith,” Moran added.