Churches pause federal lawsuit against Whitmer after most recent order

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News

A group of churches who filed suit Wednesday against Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s executive orders plan to hold off on serving the complaint after the governor’s Thursday executive order exempted churches, synagogues, mosques and places of religious worship as well the individuals participating in services. 

The language of the executive order satisfies the relief sought in the lawsuit, which was filed by three Michigan church leaders, including Republican House Speaker Lee Chatfield’s dad, Stanley “Rusty” Chatfield. 

If the Democratic governor and attorney general refrain from taking action against a church for having service, “then we will dismiss the case at a later date,” said David Kallman, a lawyer with Great Lakes Justice Center.

“Churches are essential to the health and well-being of everyone,” Kallman said in a statement. “The governor now appears to recognize this fact and will not attempt to prohibit people of all religious faiths to meet and freely exercise their religious beliefs. Places of worship can operate responsibly and safely using CDC guidelines and protocols.”

While not specifically allowing religious services, Whitmer's orders have exempted places of worship and their owners from penalties attached to violations of her ban on gatherings. 

The Thursday change extended that exemption to individuals traveling to and attending services, relief the Michigan churches had requested in their Wednesday lawsuit. 

Kallman said the conservative law firm plans to continue to file amicus briefs in other lawsuits challenging the governor’s executive orders, which the group argues still contain constitutional and statutory violations.  

The churches argued in their federal lawsuit that Whitmer’s stay-home order and ban on assemblies violated their First Amendment rights to freedom of religion and assembly. The lawsuit also argued the governor’s executive orders are unconstitutionally vague, lack due process and ignore the role of the Legislature.

The churches also said they had plans to implement safety procedures during services, protocols such as six-foot distancing between congregants, mask use and frequent sanitation.

Early in the emergency, Whitmer exempted churches from penalties related to bans on assemblies, a change that Speaker Chatfield and House Republicans had requested.

But the churches argued in their lawsuit that exemption doesn’t extend to individuals attending services.

The exemption “merely adorns the Constitution with a fig leaf and does not protect individuals or change the clear language of the order prohibiting any religious services,” the lawsuit said.

But Whitmer's extension of the stay-home order through May 28 appeared to ameliorate those concerns. 

"Consistent with prior guidance, neither a place of religious worship nor its owner is subject to penalty under section 20 of this order for allowing religious worship at such place," the executive order said. "No individual is subject to penalty under section 20 of this order for engaging in or traveling to engage in religious worship at a place of religious worship, or for violating section 15(a) of this order."