(Photo: Sandy Huffaker / AFP)

Churches across the country are filing lawsuits against Democrat governors who are not including them among the “essential” services that may immediately “reopen” as states move away from their coronavirus lockdown environments.

Oregon, California, Virginia, and Maine churches and faith leaders have filed lawsuits claiming the governors do not have authority to extend, indefinitely, stay-at-home orders against them. Failure to consider the churches as essential as liquor and box stores, they assert, amounts to discrimination and a violation of their First Amendment rights.

In Oregon, three Republican lawmakers have joined a lawsuit filed by ten churches and more than a dozen faith leaders on May 6 against Gov. Kate Brown (D), demanding they be permitted to reopen their houses of worship.

Willamette Week reported Monday State Sen. Dennis Linthicum and State Reps. Bill Post and Mike Nearman signed on as petitioners.

“We are very concerned that churches and other places of worship are not being treated in the same manner as, say, Lowe’s, Home Depot, Target, Walmart and other large corporate stores,” Post said. “I was in my Keizer Lowe’s this past Saturday, and there were well over 1,000 people in the store at one time.”

The lawsuit notes, according to the Baker City Herald, that because Brown has not convened the state legislature since declaring a state of emergency on March 8, further emergency orders are unconstitutional.

“Because governor failed to avail herself of the constitutionally prescribed procedure, her initial executive order declaring the public health emergency, issued on March 8, 2020, terminated by operation of law on April 7, 2020, and all subsequent executive orders implementing or extending the original order are legally null and void,” the lawsuit states.

“She’s giving herself powers to infringe on constitutional liberties in perpetuity,” said Ray D. Hacke of the Pacific Justice Institute in Salem, which represents the churches and the individuals. “And she can’t do that.”

A Christian congregation in Chula Vista, California, and its pastor have also filed a federal lawsuit against Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) and other officials, claiming the coronavirus stay-at-home orders are unconstitutional.

The Thomas More Society filed the civil rights lawsuit Monday in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of California, asserting:

California is one of only eight states whose response to the COVID-19 pandemic has included no accommodation for—hardly even a mention of—the religious rights of its citizens. Now, with the pandemic stabilizing, California has moved from “Stage 1” to “Stage 2.” In the first part of Stage 2, beginning on Friday, May 8, retail and manufacturing may begin reopening—but not places of worship.

“The Governor continues to shutter synagogues and churches with no end in sight,” said Charles LiMandri, special counsel for the Thomas More Society and partner at LiMandri & Jonna LLP.

“After weeks of government suppression of their religious freedoms, our clients have said enough is enough,” he added. “The First Amendment still protects their right to freely exercise their faith, even during a pandemic.”

Lighthouse Fellowship Church on Chincoteague Island in Virginia has also filed a reply legal memorandum in the federal lawsuit against Gov. Ralph Northam (D) for violating the religious freedom of churchgoers on Palm Sunday.

The U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia had previously denied the church’s motion for a temporary restraining order and preliminary injunction without a hearing.

Liberty Counsel represents the church, which especially provides outreach to drug addicts, the mentally ill, and the poor.

Police officers entered the church on Palm Sunday and issued a summons to the pastor, informing him all members of the congregation would receive a summons if the church held service on Easter Sunday.

The case also drew a statement of interest from the U.S. Department of Justice.

“We must balance the First Amendment with protecting the health and welfare of people, but picking an arbitrary number of 10 people for every church is not the answer,” said Mat Staver, Liberty Counsel chairman.

“Governor Ralph Northam has clearly discriminated against Lighthouse Fellowship Church which does not have internet and cannot flip a switch to broadcast online,” he added. “Pastor Wilson protected the health and safety of the 16 people. Yet because the church had six more people than the 10 allowed by the governor, the pastor is being criminally charged. This unequal treatment of churches is insane.”

Liberty Counsel also represents Calvary Chapel of Bangor, Maine, which filed an appeal to the U.S. District Court after it denied a temporary restraining order against Gov. Janet Mills (D) for banning in-person and stay-in-your-car church services.

Mills has allowed liquor stores, marijuana dispensaries, and big box stores to be considered as “essential” entities that may accommodate gatherings of people without threat of arrest.

Liberty Counsel noted in a press statement:

The Maine State Police, acting under the direction of Governor Mills’ orders, have publicly declared that they would enforce the orders and have threatened to impose criminal sanctions on those found in violation of them, including any gathering for worship, regardless of whether the church meets or exceeds the state social distancing and hygiene guidelines. The criminal penalty is up to six months in jail and a $1,000 fine for violating her executive orders.

“The state has no authority to dictate the form or manner of worship for every church or house of worship,” Staver said. “This discrimination reeks of government control and violates the First Amendment.”

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