A Federal Judge Sides With Colorado Churches In A Lawsuit Against Two Public Health Mandates

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Updated 4:05 p.m.

A U.S. District Court judge has ruled partially in favor of two Colorado churches, limiting the state's enforcement of capacity limits and face coverings at indoor religious gatherings.

Denver Bible Church in Wheat Ridge and Community Baptist Church in Brighton, along with their pastors, filed a lawsuit against Gov. Jared Polis, state health officials and federal officials in August. The suit alleged that certain public health orders enacted in response to the COVID-19 pandemic violated their religious rights.

Current state-issued public health orders cap indoor events at 100 people per room, depending on square footage. Outdoor events can have a maximum of 175 people for each "designated activity," which must be at least 50 feet apart. Colorado also requires people to cover their faces at all times when inside public places.

Judge Daniel D. Domenico granted part of the churches' requests in a ruling last week. He said that churchgoers should be allowed to temporarily take off masks when necessary "to carry out their religious exercise."

Domenico also ruled that some state limits on the sizes of religious gatherings were "more severe than those that apply to other so-called critical businesses whose settings pose a similar risk of COVID-19 transmission."

"The State rightly argues that during a public-health emergency, courts must be particularly mindful of the complex interaction between constantly evolving scientific understanding and policymaking," he added. “The First Amendment does not allow government officials, whether in the executive or judicial branch, to treat religious worship as any less critical or essential than other human endeavors."

The state has appealed and asked for a stay of the court's order while the appeal was heard. The court denied the motion for a stay.

Both the state and the two churches declined to be interviewed.

The churches will still be required to follow social distancing and sanitizing rules. They've also been instructed not to permit hand-shaking.

Other places of worship in Colorado have criticized the enforcement of state and local health orders, with some also seeking legal action.

One church group near Colorado Springs filed a similar suit in September that was denied by a different U.S. District Court judge.

Judge Christine M. Arguello denied the challenge by Andrew Wommack Ministries, citing the risk to public health.

A state judge later moved to halt the organization's ministers' conference held earlier this month.

Health officials linked a COVID-19 outbreak to a bible conference hosted by Andrew Wommack Ministries in July that resulted in 63 cases and one death, according to the state.