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Lee's Summit Church Sues Jackson County, Arguing Stay-At-Home Order Unfairly Singles Out Religious Institutions

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Dan Margolies
The lawsuit filed by Abundant Life Baptist Church in Lee's Summit against Jackson County mirrors other similar lawsuits in other states, claiming limits on public gatherings during the pandemic infringe on religious freedoms.

Abundant Life Baptist Church, which drew 4,500 worshipers every Sunday before the pandemic, claims the county’s orders favor restaurants, salons and other businesses over houses of worship.

A mega-church in Lee’s Summit is suing over Jackson County’s emergency public health orders in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, claiming the restrictions "impermissibly discriminate" against religious institutions.

Abundant Life Baptist Church of Lee’s Summit says the first phase of the county’s recovery plan allowing many “non-essential” activities to resume on Monday, May 11, limits church gatherings to 10 people but doesn’t impose the same restrictions on restaurants, bars or other retail establishments.

“We love our city and we support our government leaders,” the church’s senior pastor, Phil Hopper, told KCUR. “We just feel churches should be treated the same as any other nonessential business, bar or restaurant.”

“When the county made one directive for nonessential businesses that they could begin reopening based on square footage at 10% occupancy, it would stand to reason constitutionally that churches would be allowed to do the same,” Hopper said.

“Religious activity doesn’t make buildings any less safe than someone getting their hair done at a salon.”

The lawsuit says the county’s orders “impermissibly discriminate against religiously motivated gatherings and in favor of commercially motivated gatherings.”

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, Abundant Life Baptist Church’s Lee Summit sanctuary typically drew up to 4,500 worshipers to its Sunday morning services, according to the lawsuit. Its Blue Springs location can accommodate nearly 1,500 people.

“What we object to here in Jackson County is not the base restrictions, it’s that the restrictions are especially biting for churches,” said Jonathan Whitehead, the church’s attorney. “When you compare it to retail stores and bars and restaurants, they’re engaged in similar conduct.”

The church’s lawsuit was filed in federal court and names the county; the county health department; Jackson County Executive Frank White; County Administrator Troy Schulte; Bridgette Shaffer, director of the county health department; and Truman Medical Centers, which contracts with the county health department.

Leslie Carto, a spokeswoman for Truman Medical Centers, said the hospital does not comment on pending litigation.

Jackson County offices were closed Friday for President Harry S Truman’s birthday and none of the individual defendants could be reached for comment.

Abundant Life Baptist Church drew headlines last year when some Lee’s Summit schoolteachers opposed the school district’s decision to hold its back-to-school convocation in the church because of the church’s professed anti-gay beliefs.

A “Statement of Faith” on the church’s website at the time stated “that homosexuality is a perversion of God’s natural order of one man for one woman.” The school district eventually moved the event to another location.

In 2016, Hopper testified in support of an amendment to Missouri’s Constitution that would have allowed individuals and businesses to cite their religious beliefs to deny service to same-sex couples. The bill was narrowly defeated in a Missouri House of Representatives committee vote.

The church’s lawsuit over Jackson County’s stay-at-home orders is one of several filed by churches across the country claiming coronavirus stay-at-home orders discriminate against them and unconstitutionally interfere with their free exercise of religion. Among others, lawsuits have been filed against Illinois Gov. J. B. Pritzker and Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, both Democrats

In Kansas, Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly and two churchesreached a deal after the churches sued over Kelly's statewide stay-at-home order. Kelly agreed to revise her original order to allow for gatherings of more than 10 people, including church services, provided six feet of social distancing was maintained.

And earlier this week, the U.S. Justice Department sided with a Virginia church’s lawsuit against Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam’s order restricting religious services to 10 people.

At issue in the lawsuits is the proper balance between the right to religious assembly and public health concerns. Constitutional scholars broadly agree that states and local governments have the right to limit the size of public gatherings under their police powers but can’t single out churches without running afoul of the First Amendment.

“The application of a general rule designed to protect against a contagion, one that’s being applied uniformly – that’s permissible,” said David Achtenberg, a constitutional law professor at the University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Law. “But the application of stricter rules to religious assemblies is probably a First Amendment violation if you’re applying a stricter standard to them than to, say, gun shops.”

Jackson County’s recovery plan allows retail stores, restaurants, bars and personal service providers to reopen if they follow the social distancing guidelines recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Under the plan, retail stores and other establishments of less than 10,000 square feet can be 25% occupied while those over 10,000 square feet can be 10% occupied.

Churches, however, are subject to a “large gatherings and social events” limit of 10 people, regardless of their size.

Abundant Life’s lawsuit claims the church's members face an “impossible choice”: Violating their religious beliefs “by failing to assemble for corporate worship on the Lord’s Day and at other times” or “suffer fines, imprisonment or government-encouraged public shaming … by engaging in corporate worship of the Almighty God with as many people as would be allowed in a retail business, restaurant or bar of similar size.”

“We don't want to be defiant or oppositional,” Hopper said. “We just want to be treated equally and fairly under the Constitution. We don't plan on any civil disobedience. We want to do things lawfully. That's what this is about.”

Dan Margolies has been a reporter for the Kansas City Business Journal, The Kansas City Star, and KCUR Public Radio. He retired as a reporter in December 2022 after a 37-year journalism career.
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