Franklin Graham, faith leaders ask Congress to grant legal immunity to religious organizations reopening amid pandemic

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A long list of religious leaders signed onto a letter sent Tuesday requesting that Congress' next coronavirus relief package include legal immunity for religious organizations reopening amid an onslaught of new regulations surrounding the pandemic.

"[I]n the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, there has been a proliferation of complex and often contradictory orders and guidelines at the state, county, and local levels, each purporting to govern when and how to reopen," read the letter, signed by pastor Franklin Graham, actor Kirk Cameron, and dozens of pastors. In total, the letter has 300 signatories.

"Unfortunately, no religious organization—or any organization—can follow every guideline or order that has been issued around the country. We are concerned that some people—and their lawyers—will cherry pick certain guidelines from around the nation in order to assign liability to religious organizations. They might claim that a religious organization or a house of worship was negligent because it did not follow a single recommendation buried deep within a set of guidelines."

Spearheaded by the legal non-profit First Liberty Institute, the appeal underscores national uncertainty as businesses and organizations return to normal after the economic shutdown.

“Churches, synagogues, and America’s houses of worship have provided critical care, comfort, and calm in the midst of the uncertainty caused by a worldwide pandemic,” said Kelly Shackelford, President, CEO, and Chief Counsel for First Liberty Institute.  “Providing this reasonable measure of protection to religious organizations and houses of worship in America will ensure that they can continue performing their vital functions of serving Americans and ministering to all of our spiritual and physical needs.

While President Trump has offered a template for reopening, states will ultimately decide how to carry out the complicated transition, which requires they balance public health concerns with civic and economic well-being. As the letter indicates, the patchwork of regulations could make an already difficult reopening even more hazardous as organizations try to walk the fine line between those two priorities.

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Federal legislators are expected to take up the issue as they craft the fourth phase in their response to the pandemic. Rep. Mike Johnson, R-La., is sending a letter on Tuesday requesting that the Senate Judiciary Committee consider protections for non-profits, which they say meet a critical need during the crisis.

In a statement provided to Fox News, Johnson said: “It is imperative that 501(c)(3) non-profits such as food banks, churches, and homeless shelters, which have made good-faith efforts to follow health and safety guidelines, be protected from the looming threat of COVID-19 liability lawsuits.

"These organizations have been leading the charge in feeding our neighbors spiritually and physically during the COVID-19 pandemic and will continue to be on the frontlines as we begin to recover. Whether such provisions are included in a future COVID-19 package or in stand-alone legislation, we should ensure that these organizations receive equal protections from frivolous lawsuits during these trying times," he added.

A spokesperson for Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, who serves on the Senate Judiciary Committee, similarly backed churches in a statement provided to Fox News. “Churches, synagogues, and other houses of worship are pillars in our society, providing strength, comfort, and aid to those who are hurting," a spokesperson for Cruz said. "Sen. Cruz believes that Congress should ensure these faith-based institutions are not bullied into closing their doors or shutting down their services out of fear of frivolous and burdensome lawsuits.”

Corporate America has already pushed for similar protections.

But Kent Swig, president of Swig Equities, LLC, a privately owned real estate investment and development company, told the Associated Press that without liability, the reopening could be like the "Wild West."

“If there is no liability on the part of employers without a set of rules by which employers have to abide by, then that means you can have a Wild Wild West,” he said. “You have to have a balance, and you have to have rules and regulations.”

Church services, in particular, have become a source of tension during the pandemic, as they provide a venue for Americans to exercise their Constitutional right to freely exercise their faith. The society-wide shutdown took place during Holy Week and Lent, making social distancing prohibitions even more problematic for the devout.

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Legal challenges have emerged across the nation as churches faced potential penalties for holding basic services.

For example, the Lighthouse Fellowship Church of Chincoteague sued Virginia after its pastor was issued a criminal citation for having 16 people at a Palm Sunday service that authorities said violated Northam’s order barring gatherings of more than 10 people.

The U.S. Department of Justice has sided with the church. In a court filing, the DOJ argued that Virginia “cannot treat religious gatherings less favorably than other similar, secular gatherings.”

Lawyers for the church have said that during the service, those who attended maintained social distancing and had extensive sanitizing of common surfaces. The church said attendees had to stay 6 feet (2 meters) apart and use hand sanitizer before entering the building.

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In arguing against the injunction sought by the church, Virginia Solicitor General Toby Heytens wrote that the temporary restriction on in-person gatherings is a “good-faith, evidence-based” emergency measure.

“Such a ruling would seriously undermine Virginia’s efforts to resist a once-in-a-century pandemic and threaten irreparable harm to an unknown (and unknowable) number of people,” he wrote.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.