The City of New Bedford is once again facing legal action for allegations of discriminatory treatment towards churches. According to a demand letter sent today by First Liberty and Massachusetts Family Institute, officials in New Bedford are telling the leaders of New Life South Coast Church they can only have 90 people at a time in their sanctuary. This is despite the fact that their church building is a 40,000 square foot facility, formerly a supermarket.
The demand letter points out the absurdity of this numerical limitation and goes on to question the discriminatory nature of the limit on churches itself. “We also note that the City’s extremely restrictive capacity limitation singles out the Church for disfavored treatment vis-à-vis certain nonreligious buildings, organizations, and businesses—such as restaurants—that operate under mere social-distancing guidelines without a capacity restriction. Indeed, even putting aside the City’s mistaken interpretation of the DLS Standards, we are concerned that even the applicable 50% capacity limitation subjects the Church to such unequal treatment. But the City’s mistaken approach has made the disparity all the more egregious.”
Earlier this week, New Hampshire dropped its 50% capacity limit on church attendance. Churches in the Bay State are hoping Commonwealth officials do the same, and quickly. With millions of church-goers looking forward to the celebration of Easter in just over a week, there is a renewed sense of urgency to repeal these restrictions.
“Phase IV was supposed to be the ‘new normal,’” warned Attorney Andrew Beckwith, President of Massachusetts Family Institute, “but there’s nothing normal about attendance restrictions on churches for a second Easter Sunday in a row. Emergency powers that continue for more than a full year cease being justified by an ‘emergency’ at some point and transition into obvious violations of bedrock Constitutional rights.”
Attorneys for First Liberty, the largest legal organization dedicated exclusively to protecting religious liberty for all Americans, agreed with Beckwith’s concerns. “A year into the pandemic and after several Supreme Court decisions, New Bedford officials continue to act like only secular businesses are essential,” said David Hacker, Director of Litigation for First Liberty Institute. “It’s past time for local officials to stop treating houses of worship unequally. As Justice Gorsuch noted, ‘Even in times of crisis—perhaps especially in times of crisis—we have a duty to hold governments to the Constitution.”