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Besides Our Health, Is Religious Liberty and Free Speech Also at Risk During COVID-19 Pandemic?


The threat to Americans' religious freedom and free speech are among several guaranteed rights that have been the subject of much debate due to the COVID-19 pandemic amid the resulting stay-at-home orders issued by several states. 

In the latest example, a federal judge blocked a Kansas order limiting in-person attendance at religious services to 10 people or less.

The First Baptist Church in Dodge City and Calvary Baptist Church in Junction City filed a lawsuit on Thursday, arguing that the order violates their religious and free-speech rights, according to the Associated Press.

The lawsuit indicates that members of both churches sat 6 feet apart, in accordance with social distancing guidelines and took additional steps, like not passing around offering or communion plates.

"The state does not have a compelling reason for prohibiting church services where congregants can otherwise practice adequate social distancing protocol," the lawsuit said.

Gov. Laura Kelly issued the order to enforce social distancing requirements, but US District Judge John Broomes believes that might be a violation of the First Amendment.

The judge wrote in his decision, "Churches and religious activities appear to have been singled out among essential functions for stricter treatment."

The judge's ruling will remain in effect until May 2, one day before the state's stay at home order is set to expire. 

In a statement, Gov. Kelly defended her order saying, "This is not about religion. This is about a public health crisis."

In another example, CBN News reported that Mendocino County in northern California is prohibiting churches from streaming worship singing and playing wind instruments during online church services unless the worship originates from individual residences.

The order issued by the Mendocino County Board of Supervisors says, "No singing or use of wind instruments, harmonicas, or other instruments that could spread COVID-19 through projected droplets shall be permitted unless the recording of the event is done at one's residence, and involving only the members of one's household or living unit, because of the increased risk of transmission of COVID-19." 

And any violation of the order is classified as a misdemeanor punishable by fine, imprisonment, or both.

The county's ban on worship teams ends on May 10, and includes "venues, such as concert halls, auditoriums, churches, temples, and playhouses," and says, "Only four individuals may be present for the live event. All others must participate remotely."

Another prominent example involved a mayor in Mississippi whose police officers gave out tickets to churchgoers who attended drive-through church worship services where they stayed in their cars.

CBN News previously reported that members of Temple Baptist Church in Greenville, MS, were fined $500 each for sitting in their own cars in the church parking lot while listening to their pastor's sermon broadcast over the radio.

Greenville Mayor Errick Simmons issued an order requiring all church buildings to be closed for both in-person and drive-in church services due to the current COVID-19 pandemic.

Attorney Jeremy Dys with First Liberty Institute said Simmons aims to single out and target churches.

"Mayor Simmons was repeatedly pressed about whether churches who abide by CDC guidelines and host drive-in church will face the specter of the police arriving on the scene to disperse those peaceably assembled in worship. Rather than reassure his churches that this will not happen, the mayor reaffirmed his unlawful order," Dys argued. "The mayor continues to single out and target the churches of Greenville." 

The mayor announced on April 13 that members of Temple Baptist Church would not have to pay the $500 tickets they were issued at the April 8 drive-in church service.


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