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3 Steps to Determine If Government Actions Affect Public Gatherings

Churches need to closely watch how local and state officials respond to COVID-19.

3 Steps to Determine If Government Actions Affect Public Gatherings
Image: pastorscott | Getty

All governments have emergency powers. You will hear this sometimes mentioned as “health, safety, and welfare,” and emergency powers are used to help keep good order and protect the lives of citizens, especially its most vulnerable.

During this COVID-19 global pandemic, your church is likely to gain a greater awareness of the powers of government during an emergency declaration. In-person worship can be effectively shut down by prohibitions on assembling crowds by local, county, or state executive government action.

Here’s how your church can determine what your local or state government has—or hasn’t—done in response to COVID-19, and how it affects your congregation.

1. Check to see if your state has made an emergency declaration.

You can start by checking out the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials (ASTHO). According to the ASTHO, as of March 16, 2020, all 50 states, 7 territories, and the District of Columbia had taken some type of formal executive action in response to the outbreak. (Editor’s Note: The Wall Street Journal is also updating a daily tracker of state-mandated lockdowns.)

2. Check your church’s specific local health departments.

Often this can be located by searching for “County, State, Public Health.” Most county websites are already posting information about disaster declarations.

Also note: These emergency powers operate down to the county and municipal level, so also do a search for your city website for any relevant declarations.

3. Pay attention to specific language.

Once you determine how the government has used its emergency powers to restrict the assembly of people in your area, make sure you pay attention to the specific language of the declaration. Is it a mandate, prohibition, or merely a recommendation?

To learn more about how federal and state courts decide religious freedom cases, and to understand which states have their own RFRAs, check out the 50-State Religious Freedom Laws Report, a new downloadable resource from Church Law & Tax.

Adapted from an article that first appeared in The Church Lawyers e-newsletter from Middlebrook Goodspeed. Used with permission.

David Middlebrook is an attorney licensed to practice in Texas, Colorado, and the District of Columbia, and his practice emphasis is focused on representing tax-exempt organizations.

This content is designed to provide accurate and authoritative information in regard to the subject matter covered. It is sold with the understanding that the publisher is not engaged in rendering legal, accounting, or other professional service. If legal advice or other expert assistance is required, the services of a competent professional person should be sought. "From a Declaration of Principles jointly adopted by a Committee of the American Bar Association and a Committee of Publishers and Associations." Due to the nature of the U.S. legal system, laws and regulations constantly change. The editors encourage readers to carefully search the site for all content related to the topic of interest and consult qualified local counsel to verify the status of specific statutes, laws, regulations, and precedential court holdings.

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  • March 18, 2020

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