In what has been called a victory for religious freedom, a federal district judge has sided with two churches, granting an injunction against Colorado Gov. Jared Polis' COVID orders that placed numerical restrictions on houses of worship and required the congregations to wear masks.
US District Court Judge Daniel Domenico's 44-page order in Denver Bible Church v. Azar prevents the state of Colorado from enforcing the indoor occupancy limitations and the face-covering requirement on the churches. Pastors Bob Enyart of Denver Bible Church in Wheat Ridge and Joey Rhoads of Community Baptist Church in Brighton filed the lawsuit in August.
"The lawsuit," said Special Counsel Rebecca Messall, one of the Thomas More Society attorneys representing the Colorado pastors, "calls both the federal government and Colorado leaders into account for their violations of the right to free exercise of religion, among other abuses of power, primarily resulting from Gov. Jared Polis' COVID-19 related Executive Orders."
Orders Not Neutrally Applied Between NonReligious and Religious Gatherings
Judge Domenico, appointed by President Trump, granted the churches' temporary restraining order and preliminary injunction on the grounds that Gov. Polis' Public Health Order 20-35 violated their rights to the free exercise of religion under the First Amendment. The basis of the opinion is that the governor's order treats houses of worship differently than secular establishments that pose an equal risk of spreading COVID-19.
Specifically, the court found that the numerical limit (175 people) and the mandatory face-covering provisions are not neutrally applied between nonreligious and religious gatherings.
Liberty Counsel represents Andrew Wommack Ministries and Charis Bible College challenging the governor's discriminatory orders.
The judge's ruling means the churches will not be required to limit the number of people except for social distancing and attendees will not be required to wear face coverings.
Liberty Counsel Founder and Chairman Mat Staver said, "This is a major win for places of worship, the First Amendment, and the people. This is a big blow to the discriminatory orders issued by Governor Jared Polis. The state of Colorado may not ignore or suspend the First Amendment."
The Fight is Just Beginning
However, the battle is just beginning. A spokesperson from the governor's office on Thursday told Denver television station KCNC there would be no comment on the case but called it "pending litigation." The spokesperson also indicated the state's Attorney General filed an emergency motion for an injunction on Monday to keep the orders in place.
The state plans to appeal the federal judge's decision.
In his ruling, Judge Domenico wrote, "…the Constitution does not allow the State to tell a congregation how large it can be when comparable secular gatherings are not so limited, or to tell a congregation that its reason for wishing to remove facial coverings is less important than a restaurant's or spa's."
Gov. Polis ordered a statewide mask mandate on July 16 after what he called a "significant uptick" in the number of cases. It required everyone in the state who is age 11 and older to wear a mask whenever they were in public and indoors. The only exemptions were medical ones, according to KCNC.
"It's like 'The Boy Who Cried Wolf'," Pastor Enyart told the television station. "If it was a true emergency, people would be inclined to ignore government orders because of the government's overreach. There's so much evidence coming out that the lockdown is hurting people."
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