Judge allows church to hold drive-in Easter service after mayor 'criminalized' communal celebration

(Photo: Flickr Commons/Joe Gratz)

A federal judge on Saturday issued a temporary restraining order prohibiting the city of Louisville, Kentucky, from barring drive-in Easter worship services in order to stop the spread of the novel coronavirus. 

Trump-appointee U.S District Judge Justin Walker granted the temporary restraining order to On Fire Christian Church in Louisville, allowing it to go ahead with its Easter plans after Mayor Greg Fischer issued a directive last Thursday reportedly prohibiting drive-in services. 

"On Holy Thursday, an American mayor criminalized the communal celebration of Easter," Walker, who was appointed to the bench last October, wrote in his ruling.

“That sentence is one that this Court never expected to see outside the pages of a dystopian novel, or perhaps the pages of The Onion. But two days ago, citing the need for social distancing during the current pandemic, Louisville’s Mayor Greg Fischer ordered Christians not to attend Sunday services, even if they remained in their cars to worship — and even though it’s Easter.”

“The Mayor’s decision is stunning,” Walker added. “And it is, ‘beyond all reason,’ unconstitutional.”

After the mayor’s directive was issued on Thursday, the church was represented by attorneys affiliated with the First Liberty Institute in filing a petition for a restraining order on grounds that the directive violated the churchgoers' religious freedom rights guaranteed by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. 

“Defendants’ targeting of religious adherents to prevent them from gathering in a manner consistent with social distancing guidelines, while permitting similar (and at times even more intimate) social interaction to continue unabated in retail and commercial establishments, violates Plaintiff’s rights under the First Amendment,” the petition argued.

The judge’s order bars the city from enforcing or attempting to enforce, threaten to enforce or require compliance with any type of prohibition on drive-in church services hosted by On Fire Christian Church. 

“If the Court did not immediately intervene and stop Louisville’s enforcement plan, churchgoers at On Fire would face an impossible choice: skip Easter Sunday service, in violation of their sincere religious beliefs, or risk arrest, mandatory quarantine, or some other enforcement action for practicing those sincere religious beliefs,” Walker contended. 

First Liberty Institute Senior Counsel Roger Byron said in a statement that the judge “recognized that the mayor’s prohibition of drive-in church services on Easter violated the church’s religious freedom.” 

Matthew Martens, a partner at WilmerHale, a law firm also representing the church in the lawsuit, said in a statement that he is grateful for the judge’s ruling. 

“[I]n this challenging time for our country, Judge Walker upheld our ideals of religious liberty and a celebration of hope exercised in a responsible manner,” Martens said.

The church held its drive-in Easter service on Sunday as planned. 

“Our civil leaders are dealing with a difficult and tremendous situation. We pray for them,” Pastor Chuck Salvo said at the beginning of the service. “We applaud their work to help protect everyone during this pandemic. The church will continue to comply with the [Centers for Disease Control] guidelines and work with our local government to keep everyone safe and well.” 

Fischer told the Louisville Courier Journal on Saturday that his directive was only “strongly suggesting” that churches don’t hold in-person or drive-in services for Easter and added that he did not direct law enforcement activity against the churches that planned to hold drive-in services. 

"I regret that the judge did not allow us to present evidence that would have demonstrated there has been no legal enforcement mechanism communicated," Fischer complained, adding that the city twice tried to contact the court but was unsuccessful. 

According to the newspaper, Fischer announced Friday that he would have Louisville Metro Police officers record the license plate numbers of people who attended church services so that local health officials can contact attendees to see if any of them have fallen ill. Instead of focusing on drive-in services, Fischer clarified that the focus was on in-person services. 

“I’m doing it because I don’t want people to die,” Fischer said. 

Walker’s order also drew praise from U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky.

“Grateful for this strong, eloquent ruling defending Kentuckians’ religious liberty from Judge Justin Walker, @POTUS’s outstanding nominee for the D.C. Circuit,” McConnell tweeted. “Of course church parking lots cannot be singled out with unfair standards that differ from other establishments.”

Walker, a former University of Louisville law professor, was confirmed to the bench by the Senate last year by a vote of 50-41 at the age of 37. However, the American Bar Association rated Walker “not qualified” to be a federal judge because he “does not presently have the requisite trial or litigation experience.”

Follow Samuel Smith on Twitter: @IamSamSmith

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