It all started on May 25 when Mark Hotaling, the pastor of the High Plains Harvest Church in Eaton Colorado, went to a local Lowes where he observed “literally hundreds” of customers going in and out of the store, with the parking lot packed to near capacity.
Just like most every other state, Colorado issued various orders imposing limitations on in-person gatherings and, more recently, less restrictive rules for indoor service at restaurants with a 50% capacity.
Colorado's “Safer at Home” initiative mandates that in-person dine-in service can be held at 50% of the posted occupancy code limit (maximum of 50 patrons) if social distancing between parties of “eight people or fewer” is maintained, masks are worn, and other precautions are met.
But the rules for religious services in a place of worship are significantly more restrictive and Hotaling sued the government Monday in district court, naming Governor Jared Polis and Jill Hunsaker Ryan, the executive director of the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE), as defendants.
According to the DoJ:
The Department of Justice today filed a statement of interest in a Colorado federal court supporting the First Amendment religious freedom claims of High Plains Harvest Church and its pastor.
Under guidance issued by CDPHE, religious gatherings inside a place of worship are permitted only “if physical distancing is observed and the gatherings are of 10 or fewer people in each room.”
Hotaling said he was disheartened to see businesses allowed to welcome more people than his church could and argues that he would not be allowed to host more than ten worshippers, even if they socially distance, and whether or not they are in the same party — unlike various businesses including marijuana dispensaries, which may admit numerous customers into a single space so long as those customers socially distance.
The DoJ explains that because Colorado appears to be treating similarly situated non-religious activities like 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.
Especially during a crisis like this, the ability of people of faith to be able to exercise their religion is essential. Colorado has offered no good reason for not trusting congregants who promise to use care in worship the same way it trusts diners inside a restaurant, or accountants, realtors or lawyers to do the same.
The U.S. Department of Justice will continue to take action if states and localities infringe on the free exercise of religion or other civil liberties.Eric Dreiband, Assistant Attorney General
On April 27, 2020, Attorney General William P. Barr directed his staff to review state and local policies to ensure that civil liberties are protected during the COVID-19 pandemic.
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