“The constitutional benchmark is governmental neutrality, not governmental avoidance of bigotry.” That is the standard by which laws, regulations, executive orders, and ordinances, even in a pandemic, will be judged by courts enforcing the First Amendment of the Constitution. Neutral law that also happens to govern churches may be enforceable. “The right to practice religion freely does not include liberty to expose the community . . . to communicable disease or the latter to ill health or death.” Prince v Massachusetts, 321 US 158, 166-67 (1944).
In Berean Baptist Church v Governor Roy Cooper, Order (ED NC ED 2020), the federal trial court in North Carolina was asked by a church to enjoin enforcement of the governor’s restrictions on religious gatherings. While well meaning, the restrictions required church services to be held outdoors unless it was “impossible” to do so or unless inside worship was required by “beliefs.” Funerals could host fifty persons, but worship could only host ten persons even though churches were deemed “essential.” A well-meaning law enforcement officer would be required to make a spot determination of whether an outdoor worship service was “impossible” or whether “beliefs” legitimately required indoor worship. (The example that came to mind was a baptism by immersion when no body of water was available on the parking lot.) The governor’s order was enforceable by criminal misdemeanor charges. The trial court enjoined enforcement for fourteen days and scheduled a hearing for a preliminary injunction. “There is no pandemic exception to the Constitution of the United States or the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment.”
The Constitutional error imbedded in the governor’s order was the attempt to fashion an order specifically for religious activities. But, a general order applicable to every type of gathering would have closed “shopping malls” and transportation hubs so the governor of North Carolina opted to try and segregate various types of gatherings apparently by their perceived importance. The perception of importance may or may not have been conscious or intentional.
While no one would recommend intentional violation of a government order in an emergency while fears are running higher than the fevers to be prevented, many of the executive orders soon came to be viewed like the 55mph national speed limit on an interstate highway came to be viewed, a polite suggestion and nothing more, such that law enforcement could no longer enforce it. At this writing, many orders are expiring on their own temporal limitations. Thus, most churches will be able to worship as they see fit using the common sense, given by God just as was faith, to protect their people.
The most frequent question we have fielded from churches has been whether the parking lot service if conducted consistent with CDC and state guidelines is imperiled if a set of bathrooms is open and available. That question remains to be answered by any court. But, indirectly it may have been considered.
Please note that in this post we are departing from our normal practice of reporting court opinions that are more or less dispositive of the issues before the court.
In Temple Baptist Church v City of Greenville (ND Miss., No. CIV-2020-64), the United States Department of Justice (“DOJ”) filed a Statement of Interest in support of the church Plaintiff. Temple Baptist was alleged by the Plaintiff, and reiterated by the DOJ, to be a small church that did not have a website, did not have the ability to stream services, and had a membership that did not have universal access to streamed material. Temple held a parking lot worship service on Easter Sunday and used a lower powered FM transmitter to reach cars parked in the church parking lot. The church required social distancing car spacing and rolled up windows allowing no one to exit their vehicles. Mississippi declared churches to be essential businesses. The City of Greenville, however, enacted their own shelter in place order banning church parking lot services and allegedly declaring churches to be non-essential. The DOJ pointed out the enactment was directed at churches and ignored the contradiction in the city shelter in place order that allowed drive through restaurant patrons to sit in their cars in line with the windows rolled down. City police showed up at the church parking lot Easter service, knocked on windows, demanded driver’s licenses, and ticketed the attendees at $500 apiece.
There is no certainty the church will prevail even with the support of the DOJ and the protection of the First Amendment. In times of plague, epidemic and pandemic, government has extraordinary powers to temporarily curtail freedom of movement and association. However, most of the opinions on the subject date from the eras of yellow fever, smallpox and polio. The more recent opinions arose during the Ebola virus epidemic even though in the United States there were very few. However, allowing people to get out of their car to make grocery and liquor purchases, or to roll their window down to receive them, certainly seems to indicate stricter controls on church parking lot services are constitutionally impermissible.
When venerable and historically recognizable church buildings are destroyed there is a profound sense of loss. While few are listed, some church buildings are on the National Register. Other types of buildings on the National Register are protected but church buildings may not be. Also, just because preservation seems like a good idea does not mean enough money to do so will follow.
In Friends to Restore St. Mary’s, LLC v Church of Saint Mary, Melrose, Slip Op. (Minn. App. 2019), the church building was sufficiently significant “historically” that it was accepted on the National Register. However, that did not prevent an arsonist from gutting the interior of the building. The archdiocese ultimately decided to demolish the entire building because, even if restored, it would no longer be a “functional” church building by modern worship standards. The Plaintiff sought an injunction to prevent demolition of the building. The injunction was denied by the trial court and the appellate court because adjudication of the claim was precluded by the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine. The appellate court held that the trial court could not evaluate whether “there are feasible and prudent alternatives to destroying the church building” under Neutral Principles of Law without invading ecclesiastical decisions. The argument the archdiocese did not have the authority to order demolition required an interpretation of Canon Law. The determination of whether an alternative use would be “profane” or “sordid” under Canon Law could not be made on other than ecclesiastical grounds.
Unstated in the opinion but likely at the heart of the problem for those wishing to preserve a historically significant building gutted by an arsonist was insufficient insurance coverage or other funding. A special policy may have been needed to create the resources to rebuild the church interior to its pre-fire look, much less to remodel the interior for modern worship needs. A typical fire loss policy would have been inadequate for what would otherwise be a total loss. But, maintaining the commitment to pay for such an extra or special policy year in and year out would have required an extraordinary commitment. Most churches simply cannot afford it. Too, unstated, was the financial burden on offering plates of restoring an antique, or obsolete, church building, which most courts are not interested in trying to enforce.
The pro se litigation wave is threatening to swamp courts at all levels. The idea that people can successfully represent themselves has arisen most probably from two sources: (1) the influence of televised small claims cases or family law matters in which a “judge” from the “Judge Judy” model hears arguments and “testimony” from unrepresented litigants ; (2) the use of the internet as a research resource. While the latter observation will seem hypocritical coming from a blog reporting about litigation as a type of research resource, this blog like most other of this genre are useful only for general interest, issue identification so that legal services may be more wisely purchased, and for lawyers looking for details in what otherwise for that lawyer might be a new niche issue. No internet source can substitute for actual legal advice from a qualified practitioner or equip a non-lawyer for actual advocacy.
Pro se litigants in recent years have also proliferated because fueled by the foregoing, they become obsessed with winning the legal “lottery.” Because of the multiplicity of factors that can influence a judicial outcome, to the uninitiated it may seem like a game of chance. Just like “gambling addiction,” “litigation addiction” is identifiable by its symptoms. These symptoms include: (1) inability to accept a final judicial ruling; (2) inability to differentiate the impersonal judicial outcome from the personal self-interest; (3) gratification not from winning, which they almost never do, but from the vexatious harassment imposed on as many other people as possible; and (4) unwillingness to accept real legal advice from a qualified practitioner. Thus, pro se litigants exhibiting “litigation addiction” symptoms will often file new lawsuits over and over on the same issue long ago lost, will often file documents they have personally authored even when they have hired a lawyer to represent them, will often fire lawyer after lawyer because the lawyers would not participate in vexatious harassment, and in the worst cases will not stop wasting everyone’s time and money even when monetarily sanctioned. For the more extreme cases, being jailed for contempt of court, either from out bursts in court or more likely from violating filing injunctions, may be the only cure available to victims and the courts.
In Tompkins v Lifeway Christian Resources, 2019 WL 3763946 (10th Cir. 2019), the appellate court affirmed the federal trial court’s dismissal of the case and awarded monetary sanctions. This was the second appeal the 10th Circuit heard on the matter, the first being heard in 2016. In the trial court’s second case, which was the subject of the second appeal, second lawsuit was brought against many of the same defendants. It arose from the sale of a large piece of property that was the subject of the first lawsuit. While the pro se Plaintiffs may have made new arguments in the second case, none of the arguments were sufficient to constitute a valid collateral attack on the first judgment against them.