On Saturday, U.S. District Court Judge Justin Walker issued a temporary restraining order against a ban by Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer that prohibited drive-in Easter services in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Drive-in services are designed to bring congregations together while still following social distancing guidelines as they stay in their cars during the worship service.
On Fire Christian Center (OFCC) sued the mayor and was represented by First Liberty, WilmerHale, and Swansburg & Smith, PLLC.
“On Holy Thursday, an American mayor criminalized the communal celebration of Easter. 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,” Walker wrote in his opinion.
“The Mayor’s decision is stunning. And it is, ‘beyond all reason,’ unconstitutional,” he added.
OFCC hosted drive-in services before Easter in compliance with CDC guidelines. While Louisville’s mayor issued a ban on Easter services, including drive-in services, he permitted drive-in restaurant pick-ups to continue. Also, retail shopping continued with cars parking at store parking lots and people walking the store aisles.
The fact that was acknowledged in the court’s ruling.
“Louisville has targeted religious worship by prohibiting drive-in church services, while not prohibiting a multitude of other non-religious drive-ins and drive-throughs – including, for example, drive-through liquor stores. Moreover, Louisville has not prohibited parking in parking lots more broadly – including, again, the parking lots of liquor stores. When Louisville prohibits religious activity while permitting non-religious activities, its choice ‘must undergo the most rigorous of scrutiny,'” Walker wrote, finding that the mayor violated the First Amendment’s free exercise clause “beyond all question.”
He rejected the argument that church members can worship by watching services online.
“Some members may not have access to online services. And even if they all did, the Free Exercise Clause protects their right to worship as their conscience commands them. It is not the role of the court to tell religious believers what is and isn’t important to their religion, so long as their belief in the religious importance is sincere. The Free Exercise Clause protects sincerely held religious beliefs that are at times not ‘acceptable, logical, consistent, or comprehensible to others,'” Walker argued.