The head of the U.S. Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division said Friday the department supports a Colorado church’s claim that state measures to combat the coronavirus discriminate against houses of worship and violate First Amendment rights to religious freedoms.
Eric S. Dreiband said in a statement that the department has filed a “statement of interest” in a Denver federal court lawsuit filed last week by High Plains Harvest Church against Democratic Gov. Jared Polis.
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The action follows a statement issued in April by Attorney General William P. Barr that argued the government can’t impose “special restrictions” on religious activity. Some places of worship around the country opened last weekend after President Donald Trump declared them essential and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released guidelines for reopening faith organizations.
Polis’ office stood behind its measures on Friday.
“We believe our actions are constitutional and appropriately tailored to protect public health,” said Conor Cahill, the governor’s press secretary.
Both the Justice Department and the High Plains Harvest Church contend that Polis’ administration imposes more severe restrictions on gatherings at houses of worship than it does for restaurants or retail stores. Colorado has restricted church gatherings to 10 people per room with social distancing, while it recently allowed retail stores to reopen with social distancing and other precautions without a strict limit on the number of people inside.
Restaurants, too, were allowed to partially reopen this week at 50% capacity and with a 50-person limit if patrons are seated according to social distancing standards. The relaxation followed strict limits on restaurants to pick-up and delivery only in the first phase of a statewide health order that has since expired.
“Especially during a crisis like this, the ability of people of faith to be able to exercise their religion is essential,” said Dreiband, an assistant attorney general.
“We appreciate the challenging position that the state and the governor face in trying to balance public safety with personal and religious freedoms,” Jason Dunn, the U.S. attorney for the District of Colorado, said in a Friday statement. “But when government restrictions cross the line into unconstitutional violations of religious liberty, it is my duty and that of the Department of Justice to engage and protect those interests.”
Polis’ administration has had ongoing consultations with leaders of houses of worship since the pandemic struck and is constantly updating its pandemic orders. Most churches, particularly in the conservative Colorado Springs area, have encouraged their parishioners and congregants to participate remotely in online services and worship.
Dreiband said that “because Colorado appears to be treating similarly situated non-religious activity, such as in-person dining in restaurants, better than places of worship, these actions may constitute a violation of the church’s constitutional right to the free exercise of religion.”
The church says Polis and Jill Hunsaker Ryan, executive director of the state health department, violated its rights with health orders that threaten fines or jail time for violations. It seeks to have the guidance on churches overturned.
The church is based in Ault, a rural town in northern Colorado with an estimated population of 1,800.
For most people, the virus causes mild or moderate symptoms that clear up in two to three weeks. Older adults and people with existing health problems can face severe illness and death. The vast majority of people recover.