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Evangelical leaders urge Congress to protect churches from coronavirus lawsuits

Evangelical leaders urge Congress to protect churches from coronavirus lawsuits

Parishioners of Lakewood Church led by Pastor Joel Osteen pray together during a service at the church in Houston, Texas, on September 3, 2017. | Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Prominent evangelicals, including Franklin Graham and Kirk Cameron, have urged Congress to give churches immunity from lawsuits that could come in response to decisions to resume in-person services and activities during the coronavirus pandemic. 

Graham and Cameron joined nearly 300 interfaith leaders in signing a letter sent to the U.S. Senate Committee on the Judiciary this week voicing their concern that houses of worship and religious nonprofits could face a potential “wave of lawsuits [that] would force many to cease their operations.”

The letter proposes that Congress include in its next COVID-19 economic relief package some type of “immunity for religious organizations from negligence suits resulting from their serving the public or reopening in accordance with local orders.” 

“Such protection could be modeled generally after the COVID-19 laws and orders that limit liability for medical professionals and commercial entities that manufacture and sell protective equipment by establishing a gross negligence or willful misconduct standard,” the letter explains. “This simple, common sense solution will provide religious organizations desperately needed protection from simple negligence lawsuits.”

The letter was organized by the religious freedom law firm First Liberty Institute.

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The letter was signed by many notable Christian figures including Southern Baptist seminary President Al Mohler, evangelical leader James Dobson, Christian conservative activist Tony Perkins, televangelist John Hagee, radio host Eric Metaxas, Young Earth creationist Ken Ham and Hispanic Action Network President Marc Gonzales. 

While the letter was signed by mostly conservative Christian leaders, it was also signed by some Jewish leaders, including Rabbi Pesach Lerner, the president of the Coalition for Jewish Values.

“We are each concerned about a new threat to our nation’s faith communities,” the letter reads, calling the threat “a swarm of lawsuits blaming houses of worship and religious ministries for any person who attended a religious gathering or received food or shelter from a charity or ministry and subsequently contracted COVID-19.”

The leaders contend that even though the lawsuits should eventually prove meritless considering the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution grants freedom of religion and freedom of assembly, the cost of legal defense would have “devastating consequences.”

“Many of the same religious organizations who rushed to provide aid and comfort to those affected by COVID-19 now find themselves struggling financially,” the letter states. “And a wave of lawsuits would force many to cease their operations, whether due to the cost of litigation, or the mere specter of it.”

 “We have, and continue, to support prudent efforts to balance public health with the desire to ‘reopen America,’” the leaders continues. “But in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, there has been a proliferation of complex and often contradictory orders and guidelines at the state, county, and local levels, each purporting to govern when and how to reopen.”

The letter adds that no church or organization is capable of following “every guideline or order that has been issued around the country.”

“We are concerned that some people — and their lawyers — will cherry-pick certain guidelines from around the nation in order to assign liability to religious organizations,” the leaders noted in the letter. “They might claim that a religious organization or a house of worship was negligent because it did not follow a single recommendation buried deep within a set of guidelines.”

The leaders fear that some might claim in lawsuits that even if churches and places of worship follow all guidelines and orders, plaintiffs could claim that they are still “negligent” because they did not follow more stringent guidelines issued in other jurisdictions. 

“This is a novel problem arising from the speed with which seemingly every state and local government in America developed their own, independent orders and guidelines,” the letter explains.

“The problem will soon become even more acute as state and local governments across the nation transition to reopening, but each in a slightly different manner and at a different speed. We must not permit religious organizations to be blamed or held liable for negligence because a food pantry in Wyoming did not follow an artificial amalgamation of every guideline from Washington to Florida.”

The Christian Post reached out to offices of key members of the Senate Judiciary Committee for a response to the letter. Responses were not received by press time. 

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky said this week that Senate Republicans are planning to introduce a bill that would expand liability protections for businesses, nonprofits, schools and government agencies from lawsuits related to the coronavirus. 

The business community is also pushing for expanded liability protections. McConnell had described the push to expanded liability protections for businesses and other institutions as the "red line" for Republicans when it comes to negotiating the next round of coronavirus relief legislation. 

Across the country, churches are weighing the decision over whether they should reopen their doors as some states and localities are starting to go into the early phases of their societal recovery programs. 

Russell Moore, head of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, issued his thoughts on how churches should go about reopening in a blog post on Thursday. 

He cautioned that while everyone will want to rush back on the first weekend, churches should keep spacing congregants out in the sanctuaries until there is a vaccine for the virus. 

“This will mean some churches that have only had one service may now opt to have multiple services,” Moore wrote. “Some churches will perhaps even need to have persons or families ‘sign up’ for what service they will attend (the way some churches do now on especially on crowded days such as Easter).”

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