Minnesota remains one of only ten states that still outright ban church services of any size under government restrictions imposed during the statewide shutdown ordered by Gov. Tim Walz. But that could change with the lawsuit filed this week against the state’s selective enforcement of restrictions on public gatherings on behalf of a coalition of churches and businesses by the Upper Midwest Law Center.
The legal challenge accuses Walz, Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison and several county attorneys of infringing on Minnesotans’ constitutional rights under the First, Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments and received widespread media coverage, including the Star Tribune.
In a federal lawsuit filed in Minnesota on Wednesday, the group alleges Walz’s executive orders during the pandemic unfairly pick “winners and losers” by closing some businesses, schools and places of worship, while allowing big-box stores and others to remain open.
“Worshipers across Minnesota have been prohibited from assembling to celebrate Easter and the Passover, while liquor stores have remained open,” says the lawsuit. “Target, Walmart, Walgreens, and CVS are open, while local Hallmark stores are closed. Golf courses and bait shops are open, but indoor amusement facilities are shut. Nobody can legally get a haircut, but dogs may now be groomed. Businesses in Minnesota have been forced to carry rent obligations, loan payments, and tax obligations without relief and without income. Those businesses’ landlords, in turn, have not been able to collect rent from tenants who cannot afford to pay it.”
The Pew Research Center notes the vast majority of states have found a way to accommodate religious groups if for no other reason than to avoid the sort of litigation now facing Walz and other outliers like California.
…Most other states have carved out exemptions for religious gatherings in their stay-at-home orders or other directives in an attempt to balance religious freedom concerns with safe social distancing practices. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) continues to recommend that gatherings of more than 10 people be canceled, while in gatherings that do take place, individuals should remain at least 6 feet apart at all times.
In some cases, states have deemed religious worship “essential,” in the same category as food shopping and health care. These states include Florida, South Carolina and Tennessee, among others.
Roughly a third of states (15) are allowing religious gatherings to continue without any limit on their size.
Twenty-two states and the District of Columbia have specified in their orders that religious gatherings can take place, but only if they are limited to 10 people or fewer.
Yet state officials refuse to make any allowances for places of worship at a time of great need among Minnesotans for the support and services they offer.
“The virus has forced the state to take drastic action to keep Minnesotans safe, but it’s action that is within the governor’s authority,” said Walz spokesman Teddy Tschann in a statement Thursday responding to the lawsuit. “It is also in line with federal guidance and similar to what many other states are doing. All of the Governor’s actions have been grounded in the need to protect the health and safety of Minnesotans, and he will continue to work to find ways to get Minnesotans back to work and to a place where they can safely gather in large groups.”
Just the same, momentum continues to mount for churches to reopen, even if it takes a court order to resume regular worship in Minnesota.
“If you can congregate at a big box store safely on a Sunday, you should be able to attend your place of worship,” Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-East Gull Lake, said in a recent video posted on Twitter.
“I’ve visited with many pastors, big and small, on how can we do this. They have a plan. They know there needs to be social distancing. They know they can provide a church service where people don’t touch anything so that you are working together to make sure it happens but we have to find a way. Ninety percent of churches have 100 or less people. We can do this. More services if need be. Big churches have plans in place as well.