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Mo. congregation sues county for imposing limits on churches, but not secular venues

Mo. congregation sues county for imposing limits on churches, but not secular venues

Unsplash/Akira Hojo

A congregation in Missouri has filed a lawsuit against county officials over restrictions on in-person worship services that they believe violates their First Amendment rights.

Church of the Word of Fenton filed suit against St. Louis County over a local order that limits in-person worship services to 25% capacity while secular businesses are allowed 100% capacity.

Church of the Word Pastor Matthew Sheffer told news station Fox 2 Now that he believed the county order unfairly hindered his congregation.

“When you do media you can’t have face-to-face interactions. This is important. We’re hindered. We’re evangelists. We can’t even invite people to church,” Sheffer said.

The church is being represented by attorneys David Gregory and Henry Elster, who expect a court to take up the lawsuit no later than next week.

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“I would say, while we understand there are emergency circumstances, and elected leaders need to make decisions, there are certain lines in the sand they can’t cross in some of the rights protected by the First Amendment are essential,” Elster told Fox 2.

In a statement posted on their Facebook page Wednesday, Church of the Word asked for prayers from their supporters as they underwent the litigation.

“We are actively engaging with the civil realm to make sure that the establishment of religious liberty and freedom of speech isn’t lost in these days [of] government expansion and fear,” they said.

In response to the spread of the coronavirus, the vast majority of churches across the United States opted to close their doors and move their services online.

As many states are reopening, some houses of worship have taken issue with local and state orders that place greater limits on them than secular entities such as malls and grocery stores.

For example, earlier this month two churches, a pastor, and a conservative Christian group sued North Carolina over its restrictions on indoor in-person worship services as it lifted lockdown orders on other industries and businesses. 

Last Saturday, Judge James C. Dever III ruled in favor of the Christian groups, granting them a temporary order that prevented the state from enforcing the rule.

“The record, at this admittedly early stage of the case, reveals that the Governor appears to trust citizens to perform non-religious activities indoors (such as shopping or working or selling merchandise) but does not trust them to do the same when they worship together indoors,” Dever said.

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