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Federal Judge Exempts Colorado Churches From Masks Mandate, Social Distancing Requirements

— October 23, 2020

In issuing his temporary injunction against Gov. Polis’s orders, Judge Daniel D. Domenico opined that he did not believe the churches could prove most of their claims were the case to move to trial.

A federal judge has exempted Colorado churches from a state mandate requiring both that masks be worn within public buildings and that venues enforce capacity quotas on how many people may congregate indoors.

The ruling comes two months after Denver Bible Church in Wheat Ridge and Community Baptist Church in Brighton filed a lawsuit against the state.

In their complaint, the two congregations claimed that Colorado’s public health orders are overly vague and infringe upon religious freedoms.

Health orders, alleged church leaders and their legal counsel, “restrict or prevent religious speech” based on “how closely plaintiff pastors can be to persons in their congregations, and in how closely congregants can be to each other, to meet, pray, talk, stand, sit, walk, sing, pray, embrace, shake hands, smile or facially express their thoughts, opinions and emotions.”

Following news of the court’s decision, representatives from the two churches told news networks they are pleased with the ruling—and believe that it is a step in the right direction for restoring their freedoms of religious expression.

“We have a right, even an obligation to worship [God], and that’s without the government’s interference,” Pastor Robert A. Enyart told CNN.

“The government has put artificial limits on how many people could attend [services]. And those limits make it pretty much impossible for families to know if they could come to church,” he added. “It is too arbitrary, and we are so thankful this federal judge gave us [this] preliminary injunction to strike down the one arbitrary limit and the mask requirement.”

Interestingly, in his October 15 order, U.S. District Judge Daniel D. Domenico opined that he did not believe the plaintiffs could succeed in proving “most” of their claims against the Colorado government were the case to move to trial.

Nevertheless, Domenico opted to grant the churches a temporary restraining order, which prevents the state from enforcing its public health mandates at either venue.

Individuals wearing masks during coronavirus outbreak; Image via Pixabay. Public domain.
Individuals wearing masks during coronavirus outbreak; Image via Pixabay. Public domain.

“This court does not doubt that the state made these decisions in good faith, in an effort to balance the benefits of more public interaction against the added risk that inheres in it,” Domenico wrote. “But the Constitution does not allow the state to tell a congregation how large it can be when comparable secular gatherings are not so limited, or tell a congregation that its reason for wishing to remove facial coverings is less important than a restaurant’s or spa’s.”

According to The Gazette—and as may be inferred through Domenico’s own words—the judge’s ruling centers on broad provisions within Gov. Jared Polis’s public health orders.

Specifically, Gov. Polis’s mandates set different requirements and restrictions for houses or worship versus secular establishments, such as public schools, supermarkets, and commercial entities.

Colorado, though, has already challenged Domenico’s decision. On Monday, the office of Attorney General Philip J. Weiser filed an emergency motion for a stay of Domenico’s injunction, pending the outcome of the case’s appeal.

“Nothing in the state defendant’s public health orders reveal discrimination or bigotry targeted at religion,” the motion says. “If anything, Colorado’s orders treat religious organizations more favorably than comparable organizations that are nonreligion. The Governor’s executive order requiring face masks in public spaces, for example, exempts individuals who are officiating at religious services.”

CNN notes that several other states have faced mass coronavirus outbreaks which were later traced back to church services. In West Virginia, for instance, Gov. Jim Justice stated that at least 18 active outbreaks originated in houses of worship.

“We all know that church is a place that absolutely this killer can really thrive,” Gov. Justice said. “We’re singing, we love to see all those that we love and that are in our church family with us.”

“It’s an absolute place where a lot of our elderly go,” Justice added, “and we’ve got to wear a mask, stay a pew apart, and from the standpoint of our elderly, you can get your services online or something like that.”


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