Liberties Reporting on First Amendment freedoms

Colorado churches join push for in-person worship

Religious Liberty | Court decision reveals ignorance bias behind pandemic restrictions
by Steve West
Posted 10/27/20, 12:40 pm

An appeals court on Thursday temporarily reinstated Colorado’s COVID-19 restrictions on places of worship.

Gov. Jared Polis, a Democrat, issued an executive order in July limiting church gatherings to 175 people and requiring face coverings, prompting two Denver-area pastors—Bob Enyart of Denver Bible Church in Wheat Ridge and Joey Rhoads of Community Baptist Church in Brighton—to sue in August. In a 44-page opinion, U.S. District Judge Daniel D. Domenico, an appointee of President Donald Trump, struck down portions of the governor’s order on Oct. 15. He ruled the restrictions treated houses of worship differently than exempted warehouses, restaurants, and elementary schools where employees, diners, and students spend long periods in closed indoor settings.

Domenico dismissed the state’s argument that churches could worship without physically gathering while many businesses could function only in person: “This court does not believe government officials in any branch have the power to tell churches and congregants what is necessary to feed their spiritual needs.”

For now, the restrictions will stay in place while the appeals court considers what to do next.

Since the pandemic began, courts have wrestled with how to balance emergency powers to protect public health with First Amendment guarantees for the free exercise of religion. Challengers sometimes argue that states have targeted churches unfairly, similar to Colorado’s hostility toward baker Jack Phillips’ beliefs on Biblical marriage in the case of Masterpiece Cakeshop.

Domenico dismissed such arguments of animus or bigotry against religion but cited another reason for discriminatory treatment: ignorance. He said he was convinced the state acted “in good faith,” but added, “more likely this is a manifestation of a legal culture that … ‘often struggles to understand religious practice or to take religious perspectives seriously.’”

That could prove just as problematic as outright hostility.

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Steve West

Steve is a legal correspondent for WORLD. He is a graduate of World Journalism Institute, Wake Forest University School of Law, and N.C. State University. He worked for 34 years as a federal prosecutor and is now an attorney in private practice. Steve resides with his wife in Raleigh, N.C. Follow him on Twitter @slntplanet.

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  • AlanE
    Posted: Tue, 10/27/2020 10:29 pm

    I'm curious. Other than participation in communion/the Eucharist, which I recognize is a valid concern, how does a mask-wearing requirement impinge on religious liberty? I'm not trying to bait anyone here. I simply want to know--if there is a valid concern--how mask-wearing impinges on religious liberty. We all agree mask-wearing is uncomfortable, but that is not the issue here.

  • EG
    Posted: Wed, 10/28/2020 09:22 am

    It's not the masks that are causing them to sue, but the different treatment they receive in their eyes. If they see you can gather in any number for the same length of time at a store, warehouse, restaurant, or wherever, but churches have an attendance cap, then that shows different treatment.

    And I think the judge made an astute observation, that these issues come up with churches not because of outright bigotry, but because the lawmakers just don't understand or comprehend religious practice and perspectives.

  • AlanE
    Posted: Wed, 10/28/2020 01:39 pm


    I don't disagree with anything you've said, but the suit also involves mask-wearing requirements (referred to in this article as face coverings). That's what I don't get. If we allow that participating in sacraments/ordinances is roughly analogous--though not as long-lasting--to what eating is in a restaurant, then I don't see how facial coverings should have any bearing here. If an exemption is made for communion/Eucharist then I hold that facial coverings are a non-issue and covered under Romans 13 (and similar NT passages). I think John MacArthur might disagree, but I'm not sure why.

  • Rolandhunter
    Posted: Thu, 10/29/2020 08:31 pm

    "...limiting church gatherings to 175..."

    I think the issue has more to do with governmental restriction vs Constitutional guarantee of Free Exercise...  and in terms of Biblical mandates.... Heb 10:24-25.