Federal judge rules Colorado’s mask mandate, restrictions on churches are unconstitutional

Denver Bible Church in Wheat Ridge, Colorado, one of two churches that sued the state over worship restrictions implemented as a result of coronavirus.
Denver Bible Church in Wheat Ridge, Colorado, one of two churches that sued the state over worship restrictions implemented as a result of coronavirus. | Facebook/Denver Bible Church

A federal judge has ruled that Colorado’s capacity limits on places of worship as well as the requirement that attendees wear masks for the duration of religious services are unconstitutional.

Judge Daniel Domenico, who was appointed to the bench by President Donald Trump in 2019, issued the ruling earlier this month after Denver Bible Church in Wheat Ridge and Community Baptist Church in Brighton challenged several worship restrictions implemented by the state in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.

According to Domenico, “The Constitution does not allow a state to tell a congregation how large it can be when comparable secular gatherings are not so limited, or to tell a congregation that its reason for wishing to remove facial coverings is less important than a restaurant’s or spa’s.”

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“With each exception Colorado makes for secular institutions, the failure to make the same exemption for houses of worship becomes increasingly problematic,” he added. Domenico also stressed that the state “does not have the power to decide which tasks are a necessary part of an individual’s religious worship.”

In an interview with Denver’s ABC affiliate, Pastor Bob Enyart of Denver Bible Church expressed gratitude that because of the ruling, “we can actually sing congregational singing.” “We were so thankful that a federal court would recognize our God-given right to worship Him, our Creator, without the government interfering.”

“This is a major win for places of worship, the First Amendment and the people,” said Mat Staver, founder of Liberty Counsel, a legal firm representing another church that has taken legal action against the state. He described Domenico’s ruling as evidence that “the state of Colorado may not ignore or suspend the First Amendment.”

While Enyart and Staver celebrated Domenico’s decision, his ruling left in place many of the other measures implemented by the state to curb the spread of the coronavirus, including requiring churchgoers to practice social distancing, use hand sanitizer and refrain from shaking hands.

Gov. Jared Polis, D-Colo., and the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment have already appealed Domenico’s ruling to the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals, arguing that he “fatally erred.”

In a motion to appeal Domenico’s decision, the state expressed disagreement with the premise that their restrictions on religious services demonstrated “discrimination or bigotry targeted at religion.” “Absent some sort of bad faith, a law that is otherwise neutral and generally applicable does not suddenly become unconstitutional simply because it contains limited exceptions for certain secular activities but not religious activities,” the appellants argued.

Enyart has asked for “the blessing of God” as the case continues to make its way through the legal system.

The churches in Colorado are two of many churches that have achieved victories in their efforts to challenge coronavirus restrictions on places of worship. Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington, D.C., was able to hold outdoor worship services in the district after a federal judge struck down Mayor Muriel Bowser’s 100-person limit on outdoor worship services.

In a ruling very similar to the one issued by Domenico, a federal judge in New York issued an injunction preventing the state of New York from imposing strict restrictions on religious gatherings while not instituting similar mandates on secular businesses. The June ruling followed a lawsuit against Gov. Andrew Cuomo, D-N.Y., New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and New York Attorney General Letitia James by two Catholic priests and three rabbis.

In May, a federal judge struck down provisions of an executive order issued by Gov. Roy Cooper, R-N.C., that prevented religious organizations from holding indoor worship services with more than 10 people.

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