The Journal Gazette
Wednesday, March 25, 2020 1:00 am

Attorney general: Closing churches unconstitutional

MATTHEW LEBLANC | The Journal Gazette

An order closing churches amid coronavirus concerns “amounts to unconstitutional religious discrimination” and should be revised, Indiana Attorney General Curtis Hill said Tuesday.

Allen County Health Commissioner Dr. Deborah McMahan issued the order last week, citing state laws giving local health departments broad authority to close schools, churches and other public gathering spots “when considered necessary to prevent and stop epidemics.”

However, McMahan announced in a news release she amended the order to expire Tuesday night.

Elected officials including City Council members Jason Arp and Paul Ensley – both Republicans – and three GOP state lawmakers pushed back against McMahan's order, arguing it unfairly targeted churches.

Hill, in a letter to McMahan, said he agrees.

“In particular, that directive orders that attendance at functions at churches, including those church services held in non-church venues, in Allen County, Indiana, is prohibited,” Hill wrote. “Yet with respect to meetings other than church assemblies, the directive merely recommends that nonessential gatherings and situations at which greater than 10 people congregate together are prohibited.

“Absent scientific evidence that COVID-19 spreads more quickly in religious gatherings than others, your order amounts to unconstitutional religious discrimination.”

Hill said he wanted McMahan to change her order “such that church assemblies are afforded the same flexibility as other gatherings in Allen County.”

Holcomb on Monday issued a stay-at-home order that makes large church gatherings off-limits until April 7, but McMahan's order barred in-person services until April 12.

McMahan said she issued the order after learning some congregations were planning to meet in small groups.

The governor's order says churches are essential “provided they adhere to the CDC's guidance on social gatherings.” That limits groups to 10 people.

State Reps. Christopher Judy, Bob Morris and Christy Stutzman also signed on to the letter challenging the local order.

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