ST. PAUL — Three Minnesota churches, along with religious leaders and churchgoers, are suing the State of Minnesota and Gov. Tim Walz for his coronavirus-related executive orders requiring social distancing, masks and participant caps at religious services and ceremonies.
Filed on Thursday, Aug. 13, in the U.S. District Court of Minnesota, the complaint argues that Walz's orders requiring face masks in public buildings, as well as social distancing and limiting indoor capacity to 50%, violate Minnesotans' First Amendment right to religious liberty.
Minneapolis-based attorney Erick Kaardal, who is leading the case, said Thursday on a virtual news conference that Walz's orders are "targeted at churches and houses of worship," and that Walz "wants to prosecute" Minnesotans for their religious activities.
Walz's executive orders are not exclusive to houses and activities of worship. Minnesotans under the executive orders are required to wear face masks in all public buildings, and all gatherings have been subject to size limits, both indoors and outdoors, in an attempt to curb the spread of the novel virus. Houses of worship and religious services and ceremonies such as weddings and funerals are specifically named as places where Walz's orders apply.
But Kaardal argued that religious activities and places should be exempted from the orders, as some other states have done. He said that "one way to attack the disease (COVID-19) is prayer."
"Our intention here is to spread the gospel," Kaardal said. "We’re not spreading COVID-19. We’re spreading the gospel. And the gospel and religious services and religious attendance and prayer are weapons against this disease."
In Lake Park, Minn., a COVID-19 outbreak has been linked to one mid-July funeral. Out of approximately 50 attendees, an estimated 30 tested positive for the virus afterward, several of whom were hospitalized. Attendees reportedly wore masks and social distanced during the service, but did not follow medical experts' recommendations during the burial and social hour.
Kaardal is representing the plaintiffs, which include three Minnesota churches — Cornerstone Church of Alexandria, Land of Promise Church in Buffalo and Lifespring Church in Crosby — three pastors and two churchgoers.
Plaintiffs are seeking the court to declare Walz's orders as unconstitutional under the U.S. and Minnesota state constitutions, as well as an injunction against the executive orders. Walz is listed as a defendant, as well as Attorney General Keith Ellison and the three county attorneys in which the churches are located.
John Stiles, a spokesperson for Ellison, said Thursday that Kaardal's lawsuit is "nearly identical" to another suit filed against the state last week. Ellison said in a written statement that Walz's executive orders are meant "to protect the health of all Minnesotans from the worst global pandemic in a century," and that he stands by their constitutionality and legality.
"We will defend it strongly in court just as we have so far successfully defended others in court," Ellison said.
According to Ellison's office, as of the third week of July, the state Attorney General's office had spent $170,000 and 1,300 staff hours defending against COVID-19-related lawsuits and petitions. Stiles said the office has been successful against all challenges thus far to Walz's executive orders.
Also on Thursday's media call were several members of the Minnesota state House's New Republican Party Caucus. State Rep. Jeff Backer, R-Browns Valley, said he is still going to church himself, and members of his church do wear masks. An elder and board member of his church, Backer said the board voted at the start of the pandemic to require masks during service independent of Walz's mandate (though Backer himself did not vote that way). He said that decision should be up to churches, though, not the state.
"I did not agree with that for obvious reasons but I am abiding by that because my Christian faith talks about putting other people first," Backer said. "We as a group, as the board made that decision and that’s how it should be. We should not have one person making that decision because what's important to one church is different to another church."