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 Claire Chretien / LifeSiteNews

WASHINGTON, D.C., May 15, 2020 (LifeSiteNews) — First Liberty Institute informed the Senate Judiciary Committee on Monday that faith leaders representing millions of believers in the United States fear “a swarm of lawsuits blaming houses of worship and religious ministries for any person who attended a religious gathering or received food or shelter from a charity or ministry and subsequently contracted COVID-19.”

The legal organization urged Congress to protect groups of believers from lawsuits related to the coronavirus and the manifold orders currently in place.

The statement was accompanied by a letter to members of Congress, which was signed by hundreds of religious and conservative leaders, including Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council, Fr. Frank Pavone of Priests for Life, radio host Eric Metaxas, and Protestant preacher Franklin Graham.

While First Liberty Institute, as a law firm, is convinced that “these lawsuits should eventually prove meritless,” religious organizations would still have to pay enormous amounts of money to get to that point.

“Many of the same religious organizations who rushed to provide aid and comfort to those affected by COVID-19 now find themselves struggling financially. And a wave of lawsuits would force many to cease their operations, whether due to the cost of litigation, or the mere specter of it.”

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First Liberty Institute suggested that there is a “legitimate concern that some people — and their lawyers — will cherry pick certain guidelines from around the nation in order to assign liability to religious organizations.”

“They might claim that a religious organization or a house of worship was negligent because it did not follow a single recommendation buried deep within a set of guidelines,” the statement to the Senate Judiciary Committee pointed out.

“Or they might claim that, even though the religious organization or house of worship was careful to follow all relevant guidelines and orders, it is nonetheless negligent because it did not follow a more stringent guideline issued in a town a thousand miles away.”

The letter to members of Congress echoed those fears.

“We must not permit religious organizations to be blamed or held liable for negligence because a food pantry in Wyoming did not follow an artificial amalgamation of every guideline from Washington to Florida,” the faith leaders wrote by way of example.

“And even if the courts agree,” they continued, “the number of lawsuits attempting to apply that artificial standard may shut down the food pantry long before it has a chance of winning its casein court. Indeed, the mere threat of litigation may cause many religious organizations to remain closed far beyond what is necessary.”

The letter urged legislators to “include in the next iteration of COVID-19 economic relief legislation immunity for religious organizations from negligence suits resulting from their serving the public or reopening in accordance with local orders.”

Similar protections are already in place for medical professionals and certain other groups.

“Providing this reasonable measure of protection to religious organizations and houses of worship in America will ensure that they can continue performing their vital functions of serving Americans and ministering to all of our spiritual and physical needs,” both the statement to the Senate Judiciary Committee and the letter to members of Congress pointed out.

“Without this protection,” the document continued, “many ministries may feel that they cannot reopen because a lawyer may claim that they are negligent in not following the standards of another industry or even another state. And some of those who do open may find themselves facing the very lawsuits we fear.”

Kelly Shackelford, president of Texas-based First Liberty Counsel, said, “Churches, synagogues, and America’s houses of worship have provided critical care, comfort, and calm in the midst of the uncertainty caused by a worldwide pandemic.”

With some governors already opening up their states, “Congress should provide America’s houses of worship the assurance that America’s faith communities can continue to be good Samaritans to the oppressed and the downtrodden.”

The statement and letter did not refer to the First Amendment or religious freedom.

Most lawsuits filed in recent weeks had argued that limiting religious gatherings in size, if not outright banning them, violates the First Amendment. Those lawsuits always emphasized that social distancing measures and other ways to ensure proper hygiene would be implemented.

In addition to lawsuits, religious leaders in several states have demanded from their governors to change executive orders imposing more severe restrictions on worship services, which are theoretically fully protected by the First Amendment, than on grocery stores.

Last week, hundreds of pastors in California announced plans to defy Democratic governor Gavin Newsom’s executive orders deeming religious gatherings nonessential. In an open letter to the governor, they “declared their intent to begin holding in-person church services beginning on Sunday, May 31, 2020.”

In Massachusetts, 260 pastors told pro-abortion Republican governor Charlie Baker on May 7 that religious institutions are, in fact, essential. “It is also clear that church is essential under both our state and federal Constitutions,” they wrote in their letter.

In Virginia, almost 200 pastors asked Democratic Governor Ralph Northam to revise executive orders limiting religious gatherings to ten people. “The Church of the Lord Jesus Christ is a hospital for the spiritually sick,” the religious leaders wrote. “Yet corporate worship services of more than 10 people have been banned in Virginia since March 23, regardless of the public-health protocols in place and notwithstanding that groups are permitted to gather in settings such as non-retail offices and ‘essential’ retail businesses.”

At the same time, the federal Department of Justice (DOJ) is supporting the case of Lighthouse Fellowship, a Protestant community in Chincoteague, Virginia, that was served a summons for holding worship services amid the coronavirus pandemic.

In a Statement of Interest filed in early May, the DOJ explained that governments are in a position to take necessary and temporary measures to meet genuine emergencies. However, “there is no pandemic exception to the Constitution and its Bill of Rights.”