Indianapolis, Marion County singling out church services with 25-person limit…even outside

Restaurants, shopping malls can operate at 50% capacity, but churches still severely restricted in COVID-19 reopening plans
Friday, May 22, 2020

Attorney sound bite:  Ryan Tucker

INDIANAPOLIS – Alliance Defending Freedom sent a letter Friday to Indianapolis Mayor Joseph Hogsett and the Marion County Public Health Department on behalf of a local church that isn’t permitted to hold services, even outside, of more than 25 people while restaurants and shopping malls are allowed to operate at 50% capacity.

The city and county have held firm to the church gathering restrictions in their public health orders related to the COVID-19 pandemic despite a recent letter from Indiana Attorney General Curtis Hill that pointed out that such unequal treatment is riddled with legal and constitutional problems, especially when the state classifies churches as “essential,” and some of the businesses with greater freedom in the city and county are classified as “non-essential.”

“The government can certainly prioritize health and safety, but it can’t allow greater freedom for some groups while denying it to others,” said ADF Senior Counsel Ryan Tucker, director of the ADF Center for Christian Ministries. “Subjecting religious groups to worse treatment than their commercial counterparts violates the U.S. Constitution, the Indiana Constitution, and state law. We are asking the mayor and the county to start allowing churches to meet in a manner commensurate with the freedom they have granted to other types of venues.”

Like nearly all other congregations across the country since the pandemic began, Castleview Church, located on Indianapolis’s northeast side, hasn’t been meeting for worship services but wishes to resume services in the next several days by starting with outdoor services on a large lawn area (about the size of two soccer fields) on its multi-acre site. At these initial services, the church will forego the distribution of communion, limit access to restroom facilities to one individual or family at a time, and adhere to other measures consistent with guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Indiana State Department of Health.

“The mayor and county have provided no reason for limiting religious activities while granting much greater freedom to non-religious commercial activities,” said ADF Legal Counsel Paul Schmitt. “As the attorney general explained, because there’s no evidence that COVID-19 spreads more quickly in religious gatherings than other types of gatherings, the more severe restriction on churches ‘amounts to unconstitutional and unlawful religious discrimination.’ That’s why we are urging the mayor and county to eliminate their baseless limitations on religious activities and gatherings. At the very least, churches should be able to responsibly conduct their worship activities with the modifications that allow shopping malls, retail stores, or restaurants to function.”

“Castleview Church wishes to comply with the law—it has followed the directions of state and local authorities throughout this time. However, the leaders and members of Castleview should not be forced to forego their religious activities and duties when the City of Indianapolis and Marion County imposes on churches irrational restrictions that are more severe than those imposed on commercial entities,” the ADF letter explains. “We ask you to clarify that churches may engage in their worship activities and adopt the precautionary measures in the same fashion as commercial entities by May 26, 2020. If you refuse, we will take the appropriate legal action on behalf Castleview Church.”

Alliance Defending Freedom is an alliance-building, non-profit legal organization that advocates for the right of people to freely live out their faith.
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