The US Department of Justice (DOJ) filed a statement of interest on Friday in the US District Court for the District of Colorado in support of a Colorado church suing the governor over an executive order restricting church services.
In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Colorado Governor Jared Polis issued Executive Order D 2020 044 on April 26, which, among other things, bans public gatherings of 10 or more people. The High Plains Harvest Church filed a lawsuit in federal court on Monday against him and the executive director of the state health department. The church claimed that the order substantially burdens their free exercise of religion by preventing them from gathering for church services.
In its statement of interest, the DOJ noted that Colorado had announced it will allow up to 50 people inside restaurants, provided they maintain appropriate social distancing and sanitation protocols. However, churches and other places of worship are still limited to less than 10 individuals. The DOJ contends “[t]hat discriminatory treatment triggers strict scrutiny review,” and asks that the court grant a temporary restraining order against the 10-person ban.
The DOJ’s interest in the case stems from a memorandum issued by Attorney General William Barr at the end of April. In that memo Barr stated that the DOJ may need to step in “[i]f a state or local ordinance crosses the line from an appropriate exercise of authority to stop the spread of COVID-19 into an overbearing infringement of constitutional and statutory protections.”
The DOJ also intervened on Friday in a case in Maine involving state-mandated self-quarantine for all out-of-state visitors.