Colorado’s COVID-19 public health orders that limit the number of people who can attend indoor religious services and require worshippers to wear masks at all times are unconstitutional, a federal judge ruled.
U.S. District Court Judge Daniel Domenico ruled last week that state officials cannot enforce mask-wearing mandates or some limits on the size of gatherings at Denver Bible Church in Wheat Ridge and Community Baptist Church in Brighton.
The two churches filed a lawsuit against both state and federal authorities in August, alleging public health orders aimed at curbing the spread of the novel coronavirus violated their religious rights.
Domenico dismissed most of their claims, but granted part of their request, agreeing they should be exempted from mask-wearing requirements if they interfere with their religious exercise, and from particular limits on indoor gatherings that do not apply to secular institutions.
In the ruling issued Thursday, Domenico found that those two state rules are more severe for religious institutions than for secular ones, and violate the congregants’ right to religious freedom. State officials disputed the judge’s interpretation of those health orders, arguing in an appeal that the judge “fatally erred” when he interpreted the law.
“The Constitution does not allow the State to tell a congregation how large it can be when comparable secular gatherings are not so limited, or to tell a congregation that its reason for wishing to remove facial coverings is less important than a restaurant’s or spa’s,” Domenico wrote in the 44-page order.
The ruling breaks from stances other judges in Colorado have taken on religious freedom challenges to Gov. Jared Polis’s public health orders. The courts have consistently ruled the orders do not violate the U.S. Constitution. The U.S. Supreme Court also took up the issue this year and rejected efforts by a California church to stop that state’s order to shut down religious services.
Domenico ruled worshippers at the two Colorado churches can temporarily remove their face masks when doing so is necessary to carry out their religious activities. The churches will still need to follow social distancing, sanitizing and other public health rules that also apply to secular institutions, the judge found, taking issue only with differences in how the public health orders are applied to secular and religious institutions.
Polis and the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment appealed the decision Monday, and asked that the judge’s order be reversed while the appeal is pending, saying that allowing services to go forward without precautions could result in outbreaks of COVID-19.
The motion says Domenico took scientific evidence out of context in his ruling and says that the public health orders are not unconstitutional because they do not single out religious activities.
“Absent some sort of bad faith, a law that is otherwise neutral and generally applicable does not suddenly become unconstitutional simply because it contains limited exceptions for certain secular activities but not religious activities,” the motion reads. “…Nothing in the state defendant’s public health orders reveals discrimination or bigotry targeted at religion.”
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