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Coronavirus Impact: Drive-In Church Services

Written by Adel Nucho on May 1, 2020 Category: Coronavirus, First Amendment, Substantial Burden

Prohibiting Sunday church services—even when attendees remain in their cars—is “beyond all reason, unconstitutional,” a federal judge exclaims in Kentucky.

By now, we are all aware of COVID-19 and the ongoing public health crisis. As a result, wherever you are in the United States, you are probably subject to a stay-home order. And the violation of such governmental orders is likely a criminal offense.

An important exception to many of these stay-home orders allows curbside or drive-through services. Such exceptions clearly cover restaurants and some department stores.

Sadly, churches and other religious groups often remain unprotected.

In Kentucky, for example, the Mayor of Louisville prohibited “drive-in” church services. But before Easter Sunday came around, a federal judge granted a religious group’s motion for a temporary restraining order (TRO).

In the case of On Fire Christian Center, Inc. v. Fischer, the Court agreed with the government on one thing: “society has the strongest of interest in curbing the growth of a deadly disease.” What the Court had a problem with is, ultimately, treating non-religious activities more favorably than religious activities.

Why allow drive-through liquor stores, but not drive-in church services? Allowing the former while prohibiting the latter is “beyond all question, a plain, palpable invasion of rights secured” by the First Amendment.

After all, religious groups can practice social distancing in accordance with CDC guidelines, especially in a drive-in service. “Cars will park six feet apart and all congregants will remain in their cars with windows no more than half open for the entirety of the service,” the Court pointed out.

While it is true that these stay-home orders serve a compelling government interest, the means used by the government should be—at the very least—applied equally to religious and non-religious activities.

If you have questions about your religious organization’s right to hold drive-in services, feel free to contact a Dalton & Tomich, PLC attorney.

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Dalton & Tomich, PLC is the national leader in successfully helping churches, other religious institutions and their insurers defend their rights in land use and zoning matters under RLUIPA, the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act. We have helped clients win cases against municipalities and other local government bodies from coast to coast, with experience serving both as general counsel and special litigation counsel.