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Mead church to argue Wednesday for fewer restrictions on in-person worshipping in time for Christmas

The Thomas S. Foley United States Courthouse, seen in 2014.  (JESSE TINSLEY)

A Mead church has dropped its request of a federal judge to allow a half-full sanctuary in time for Christmas.

Christ’s Church of Mt. Spokane filed a lawsuit in May alleging First Amendment violations in Gov. Jay Inslee’s proclamation limiting attendance during the pandemic. Emboldened by the Diocese of Brooklyn’s legal victory against the state of New York last month, and one by two churches seeking similar permission to worship in person in Nevada, Christ’s Church asked U.S. District Court Judge Thomas O. Rice last week to permit indoor gatherings exceeding Inslee’s current restrictions.

The church dropped its request just before a hearing was scheduled by phone Wednesday morning, citing new orders by Inslee in response to the New York and Nevada cases. 

The challenge would have tested the state of Washington’s perfect legal record in defending Inslee’s pandemic orders, according to the Washington Attorney General’s Office. No plaintiff has yet received relief from the restrictions, according to an office spokeswoman.

Christ’s Church, and Westgate Chapel in Edmonds, argue Inslee’s order limiting indoor religious gatherings to 25% capacity creates different conditions for religious gatherings than secular ones. That runs counter to the recent Supreme Court and U.S. Ninth Circuit Court rulings, argues Ryan Tucker, senior counsel for Alliance Defending Freedom. Tucker’s organization is representing the churches in court.

“The Supreme Court made very clear when you have a COVID restriction, you have to look at it through the lens of the First Amendment,” Tucker said.

The Washington Attorney General’s Office countered that the 25% capacity provided churches is in line with other commercial and nonreligious gatherings.

The Alliance Defending Freedom, a nonprofit, conservative Christian foundation based in Arizona, has filed legal challenges seeking to lessen restrictions on church gatherings during the pandemic in 11 states, according to its website. The group, which has drawn criticism from progressive and civil rights groups for its actions against same-sex marriage and abortion, has been contacted by 3,000 churches since the pandemic began, Tucker said.

The Attorney General’s Office, appearing on behalf of Inslee, argues that the churches have not allowed time for the governor to consider the implications of the court rulings and potentially revise religious gathering restrictions. The rules in New York and Nevada were far more restrictive than those imposed by Inslee, the office argues, and to date no Washington church has faced any civil or criminal penalty for violating the capacity rules.

Some have even chosen to continue holding in-person services without masks, in clear violation of the state’s orders. One of the earliest outbreaks identified in the state happened following a choir practice at a church in Skagit County, which left 53 of the 61 attendees with probable cases of COVID-19. Two people died.

“In short, while protecting religious liberty is vitally important, it cannot justify needless deaths,” Zachary Pekelis Jones, an assistant attorney general for the state of Washington, wrote in a brief filed late Tuesday.

A representative of Christ’s Church, founded 19 years ago and currently holding weekly, socially distanced services at its location off Peone Road, could not be reached for comment Tuesday.

Court pleadings indicate Christ’s Church hopes to hold services on Christmas at 50% capacity, with masks, hand sanitizer and disinfectant wipes available for congregants. That would allow 55 people into the church’s sanctuary, instead of the 27 who would be permitted inside under the governor’s current restrictions.

Holding services online would not solve the problem of congregants without high-speed internet service in the rural reaches of north Spokane County, Pastor Pete Hull argued in court filings. Traffic noise and inclement weather will prevent them from holding drive-up services, he wrote.

Tucker said Christ’s Church and Westgate are taking steps to limit exposure risk to the novel coronavirus, and that restrictions on religious gatherings were hard to mesh with guidance that allowed big box stores, cannabis retailers and other businesses to operate daily with similar, or larger, capacity.

“These churches are taking this seriously. They’re adopting health and safety protocols to protect the flock,” he said.

Several legal claims have been filed challenging Inslee’s orders, at the state and federal level. The Attorney General’s Office said it was unaware of any relief, including the type of preliminary injunction that had been sought by Christ’s Church, being awarded by a judge.

Editors note: This story was updated Wednesday, Dec. 23, to indicate that the church had dropped its request to hold larger in-person services in time for Christmas.