priest during Church Closure

A priest in Orange, Conn. has filed a lawsuit after being told he would be arrested if he continued to host services during coronavirus.

Father Bernard Paul Champagne of Our Lady of Sorrows Church says he has the right to hold religious services under Executive Orders put forth by the Governor of Connecticut, Ned Lamont. 

The plaintiff says on March 12, 2020, Gov. Lamont issued an Executive Order that prohibited gatherings of 250 people or more, but would not be relevant to spiritual gatherings or worship service.

Then, on March 16, Gov. Lamont issued another Executive Order which stated that spiritual gatherings would not be closed, but would be limited to no more than 50 people in attendance.

The plaintiff claims that on March 16, defendant Dr. Amir Mohammad, in his role as the Orange Public Health Director, issued an order that all religious gatherings would be canceled until further notice. 

Champagne says that despite allowing retail establishments to remain open during the coronavirus outbreak, the defendant has ordered the prohibition of the operation of all churches and religious gatherings that are in Orange, or there will be criminal prosecution.

The plaintiff claims that at the end of April 2020, he was confronted by the Orange Police Department and threatened with criminal arrest if he would not lock all of the church doors and refuse admittance to any person.

“Defendant Mohammad has and does continue to prohibit faith-based and religious gatherings regardless of the minimal and ‘state-compliant’ number of people who would be in attendance, and, regardless of the religious congregants’ ability to maintain social distancing and personal hygiene practices,” the church closure lawsuit states.

Champagne says the defendant has targeted all religious institutions for restrictions and closures, despite allowing social gatherings and commercial communing under safe protocols.

The plaintiff maintains that the defendant’s actions are in direct contravention with Gov. Lamont’s orders that churches can remain open with certain health protocols. In addition, the defendant has ordered the Orange Police Department to enforce his rules about church closures, even though he is allowing businesses and other establishments to remain open.

The coronavirus lawsuit complains that religious organizations have been singled out and punished for participating in “faith-based” gatherings when numerous commercial and non-religious companies where large numbers of people are present are still permitted by the local government.

“Members and attendees and Father Champagne have been stigmatized and subjected to hostile confrontation in that they are threatened with loss of liberty and life if they so much as open their church door let alone enter to pray singularly,” the church closure lawsuit goes on to say.

The coronavirus lawsuit maintains that, because of the church closure, the church is suffering irreparable injury by not being allowed to engage in their protective rights of free exercise, assembly and speech.

In addition, Champagne explains that he has suffered injuries due to the threat of criminal sanctions merely by exercising constitutionally protected freedoms. 

The plaintiff maintains that the ongoing religious discrimination by the defendant will compound harm by preventing him from using the church for religious purposes. 

Church Closure stay at home orderChampagne also states that the defendant’s order violates the plaintiff’s right to assemble under the First Amendment by closing the churches and not allowing for religious services.

The priest says the defendant’s order is unconstitutional and discriminates against religious assemblers versus commercial assemblers.

“The Defendant’s demand that all churches be and remain closed is not the least restrictive means to accomplish any permissible purpose sought to be served by these discriminatory orders, and, the Defendant’s order is not narrowly tailored to serve any purported legitimate government interest,” the church closure lawsuit notes.

Champagne claims that the defendant’s order is irrational and unreasonable and imposes unjustifiable restrictions on the plaintiff’s constitutional right to assemble. In addition, the priest maintains that the defendant’s order is an unconstitutional prior restraint of his free speech.

“The Defendant lacks a compelling, legitimate, or rational interest in the application of different standards against the Plaintiffs as opposed to the exempted or permitted non-religious businesses and entities,” the church lawsuit closure goes on to say.

Champagne states that the defendant’s order to close all churches is not neutral or generally applicable; rather, the defendant’s order discriminates and targets the religious beliefs, speech, assembly and values of him and others affected. 

What do you think of the coronavirus order that closes churches? Leave a message in the comments section below.

The plaintiff is represented by C. Christian Young of Cohen & Wolf PC. 

The Church Closure Lawsuit is Our Lady of Sorrows Church Inc., et al. v. Dr. Amir Mohammad, Case No. 3:20-cv-00674, in the U.S. District Court for the District of Connecticut.

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