New Bedford Church Challenging Governor’s Coronavirus Rules in Court

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A nondenominational Protestant church in New Bedford is asking a federal judge to throw out the governor’s coronavirus limitations on capacity and prohibition of gatherings after church services, saying the rules for churches in Massachusetts are more restrictive than what the state requires of businesses and other activities.

New Life South Coast filed a lawsuit late Monday afternoon in U.S. District Court in Boston claiming that state and local officials are violating the church’s free exercise of religion, freedom of speech, and freedom of assembly, all guaranteed by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

“Unfortunately, Massachusetts continues to impose onerous restrictions on places of worship even as it loosens restrictions on comparable commercial and leisure activities,” states the church’s complaint, filed by its lawyers.

Church officials say they have followed social distancing and other safety rules required by the city and state. They also say they are not aware of a single case of coronavirus stemming from church services at New Life, according to the complaint.

Even so, churches suffer from “differential and disfavored treatment” under current coronavirus rules, according to the complaint, which is dated Monday, May 10.

In the church’s case, city officials limit the church’s coronavirus capacity to 10 persons per 1,000 square feet – or about 37 percent of its ordinary capacity, the complaint states. Churches in many other places are allowed to fill up to 50 percent of their capacity.

But the church notes that for some other commercial and leisure activities the state imposes no set limit on how many people the hosts can have at their establishment.

“Under those regulations, restaurants, theaters, public transit, and other places of public gathering have limited or no restrictions on capacity, beyond the practical constraints of social distancing, while places of worship must follow more burdensome capacity restrictions,” the church’s complaint states. “In addition, the regulations single out places of worship for special disfavor by barring ‘communal gatherings’ before and after the religious service — a restriction that applies to no other institution or activity, and that purports to regulate how Massachusetts citizens may exercise religion.”

Churches are treated more harshly than businesses, the complaint says.

“The regulations make it easier to meet at Applebee’s or an AMC theater than at New Life. This cannot stand,” the church’s complaint states.

The church’s lawsuit relies in part on a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision that found that government restrictions on churches require what the court calls “strict scrutiny” because the free exercise of religion is a fundamental right. The high court in Tandem v. Newsom, a California case decided April 9, said “government regulations are not neutral and generally applicable, and therefore trigger strict scrutiny under the Free Exercise Clause, whenever they treat any comparable secular activity more favorably than religious exercise.”

New Life South Coast is a charismatic nondenominational church with a principal building in New Bedford and a second campus in Fall River. Pre-coronavirus, it was drawing about 1,300 people on a Sunday, according to court papers.

The church is represented in the lawsuit by six lawyers from three entities:  the Massachusetts Family Institute, which has an office in Woburn; First Liberty Institute, which is headquartered in Washington D.C.; and Jones Day, a Washington D.C. law firm.

One of the lawyers listed on the complaint is Andrew Beckwith, who is president and general counsel of the Massachusetts Family Institute.

“A year into the pandemic and after several Supreme Court decisions, the Governor and New Bedford officials continue to act like only secular businesses are essential.  It’s past time for state and local officials to stop treating houses of worship unequally,” Beckwith said in a written statement Monday.

 The lawsuit names as defendants Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker and Michael Flanagan, the director of the state’s Department of Labor Standards. It also names New Bedford Mayor Jonathan Mitchell and Damon Chaplin, the director of the city’s health department.

The governor’s press office did not immediately respond to a request for comment Monday night. Neither did Flanagan, Mitchell, or Chaplin.


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