JACKSON COUNTY, Missouri (LifeSiteNews) – A Missouri county agreed to pay almost $150,000 to a local church that sued officials last year over “discriminatory” COVID-19 restrictions.
Jackson County, which includes Kansas City, approved a settlement with Abundant Life Baptist Church (ALBC) on Monday after the Baptist megachurch filed a federal lawsuit alleging that health orders issued by the county “impermissibly discriminate[d] against religiously-motivated gatherings.”
The majority-Democrat Jackson County legislature approved the $146,750 settlement in a 6-2 vote, the Kansas City Star reported. The legislature also agreed that future restrictions would not disproportionately impact churches.
Last May, Jackson County limited church services to 10 people amid COVID-19, defining indoor worship as “large gatherings or social events.” Retail stores, restaurants, and other “non-essential” businesses, however, were permitted to open with social distance measures at 10% or 25% capacity, depending on size.
ALBC’s largest facility can hold up to 4,740 people, according to the group’s lawsuit, filed May 7 in the U.S. District Court for Western District of Missouri.
“Because Defendants have classified Plaintiff’s ‘church’ activities as ‘non-essential’ and/or ‘large gatherings or social events,’ Plaintiff will only be able to admit ten total persons – counting the pastor and staff – to worship services on May 17, 2020,” the lawsuit stated. “If Abundant Life were to engage in retail sales, or served food and liquor as a bar, rather than religious worship at its Lee’s Summit location, Jackson County’s Phase I plan would allow 474 people in the building at a time while meeting or exceeding the CDC’s guidelines.”
“Defendants’ orders impermissibly discriminate against religiously-motivated gatherings, and in favor of commercially-motivated gatherings.”
ALBC’s complaint noted that the group was “forced to cancel or turn away persons from services of corporate worship and to reduce ministry to members and the public or use less effective methods such as internet streaming services” under Jackson County’s health plan. The megachurch, which runs a food bank and education services, also had to cut activities not defined by the county as “Essential Business,” including “social services for disadvantaged persons.”
ALBC sought a judgment ruling that the county restrictions were “facially unconstitutional,” citing violations of the First and Fourth Amendments, the Missouri Constitution, and the Missouri Religious Freedom Restoration Act.
“We were going to lose,” Jackson County legislator Dan Tarwater, a Democrat, acknowledged to the Kansas City Star after voting in favor of the settlement on Monday. The county’s lawyers said it was futile to keep fighting the lawsuit, though Tarwater “kind of wanted to wait and see if we could win,” he added.
Jackson County and University Health, which oversees the county health department, will pay equal amounts of the $146,750 payment to ALBC.
Abundant Life’s settlement comes after several federal courts, including the U.S. Supreme Court, struck down disproportionately strict limits on places of worship in recent months.
In November, the Supreme Court overturned restrictions in New York state that similarly capped church attendance at as few as 10 people. The high court also blocked a California ban on in-person worship in February and struck down another rule restricting Bible study and at-home worship services in California in April.
The Department of Justice had warned of the unconstitutionality of “special restrictions on religious activity that do not also apply to similar nonreligious activity” in a statement last year.
“For example, if a government allows movie theaters, restaurants, concert halls, and other comparable places to assemble to remain open and unrestricted, it may not order houses of worship to close, limit their congregation size, or otherwise impede religious gatherings,” the statement, issued by then-Attorney General Bill Barr, stressed.