Louisville church drops lawsuit after mayor allows drive-in worship services

Louisville, Kentucky Mayor Greg Fischer speaks at at an interfaith celebration at the Roman Catholic Cathedral of the Assumption in downtown Louisville, KY on April 19, 2017. | Wikimedia Commons/Festival of Faiths

On Fire Christian Church in Louisville, Kentucky, has come to an agreement with city officials to end its lawsuit against an order that banned churches from holding drive-in worship services. 

Mayor Greg Fischer has agreed to allow churches to hold drive-in worship services so long as they abide by social distancing guidelines established by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, according to attorneys representing the church.

The agreement comes after On Fire Christian Church was granted a temporary restraining order against Fischer’s April directive temporarily prohibiting churches from holding in-person and drive-in worship services to stop the spread of the novel coronavirus. 

The church claimed that the directive violated its constitutional rights to assemble. 

“We are grateful to Mayor Fischer and Louisville city officials who worked with us to ensure their policies are both consistent with the Constitution and the CDC’s guidelines,” Roger Byron, an attorney representing the church from the First Liberty Institute, said in a statement

“During this challenging time, we need to see more of this kind of cooperation between government officials and the religious community.”

With stay-at-home orders in place statewide, the church had been hosting drive-in church services consistent with CDC guidelines in its parking lot for several weeks. 

During those services, cars were instructed to park six feet apart and congregants were asked to remain in their cars with the windows no more than half-open. 

On April 18, a federal judge granted On Fire Christian Church a temporary restraining order preventing the city from enforcing the mayor’s directive until the merits of the case were settled. The restraining order allowed the church to go through with its planned drive-in Easter service

On Tuesday, the church’s attorneys filed a motion with the federal court to enter an agreed order that would end the judicial proceedings.

“We are pleased that the mayor was willing to work together with our client to find a solution that protects religious liberty exercised in a responsible manner,” Matthew Martens, another attorney representing the church from the law firm WilmerHale, said.

“Like everyone, On Fire Christian Church looks forward to the day when they can meet together in-person again without being restricted to their cars.”

In a statement Tuesday, Fischer thanked On Fire Christian Church and pastor Chuck Salvo for recognizing the need for social distancing to “battle this deadly pandemic."

"My goal all along has been to protect the citizens of Louisville Metro from this dreadful COVID-19 virus, and I believe this Agreed Order accomplishes that goal," Fischer said in a statement.

In his temporary restraining order, Trump-appointee U.S. District Court Judge Justin Walker claimed that the “mayor criminalized the communal celebration of Easter.” Walker argued that Fischer’s directive was “‘beyond all reason” unconstitutional.

In an interview with the Louisville Courier-Journal in response to the restraining order, Fischer claimed that his directive was only “strongly suggesting” that churches not hold drive-in or in-person worship services. Fischer said that he did not direct any law enforcement activity against churches holding 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 said. 

While some churches across the nation have shifted worship services from the sanctuary to the parking lot in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, some churchgoers and pastors in Kentucky and other states have faced citations and fines for taking part in services deemed to be violations of state and local stay-at-home orders.

Elsewhere in Louisville, a church that held a controversial in-person service for Easter filed a lawsuit against Gov. Andy Beshear, seeking a temporary restraining order against the governor’s order prohibiting mass gatherings.

The lawsuit filed by Maryville Baptist Church claims that Kentucky State Police troopers recorded license plate numbers of vehicles attending Maryville’s Easter service and placed notices on vehicles about how attendees will have to self-quarantine. 

The church’s request for a restraining order was denied by a federal judge last Saturday. U.S. District Judge David Hale denied the motion on grounds that the governor’s order does not discriminate on the basis of religion since it bans all mass gatherings. 

Churches have filedlawsuits in other states, challenging bans on mass gatherings.

In California, three churches sued in an attempt to block Gov. Gavin Newsom’s stay-at-home order. In recent weeks, pastors in the state have received citations and could face fines of up to $1,000 for holding in-person services.

Last week, the mayor of Greenville, Mississippi shifted course and allowed drive-in services after churches filed a lawsuit following the issuing of $500 tickets to parishioners who attended a Wednesday drive-in service at Temple Baptist Church. 

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