Legal Rights for Churches Challenged

Written by Allan Armitt on Jul 30, 2020 in State Compliance

Many churches are trying their best to navigate the new realities of our current world. With the fall coming, and schools starting to announce back-to-school plans, many of us are realizing that this season may last longer than we had hoped. Some schools are opening like normal, some have a delayed start, some are going all-digital, and some aren't opening until the spring. If public schools are that flexible in their planning, how much more creative should the Church be!?

While many churches in America are trying to figure out how to move forward, some churches are also taking a stand to fight for their legal rights, protected under the Constitution.

Before we dive into these topics, let's set a foundation for the importance of your church or ministry in this unprecedented time in history.

The Role of the Church in this Hour

From the inception of the Church, we've seen Christians step up in times of crisis. From plagues to famines, during wars, and even under severe persecution, faith-based communities have often played a pivotal role in finding solutions and keeping people alive, both physically and spiritually. In many of those instances in our history, we've also seen great revivals and great awakenings happening concurrently with crises! As Jesus said to his disciples in Matthew 9:37, "The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few; therefore beseech the Lord of the harvest to send out workers into His harvest."

We already see some of this harvest. At StartCHURCH, we've heard stories of whole communities turning to God. Revivals are happening from barns in the Shenandoah Valley to beaches in Orange County, California. We've heard of people coming to salvation and being baptized in swimming pools, bathtubs, rivers, and oceans! If the Lord has given you a mission, there isn't a better time to leap into His plans for you. At StartCHURCH, we want to partner with you to help your vision come true, but none of it works unless the Lord has placed that vision and mission on your heart. Just one person gaining clarity from the Lord can change entire communities! 

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Adjusting to the New Normal

Just this month, two new large churches, NorthPoint Ministries and Summit Church, announced that they will not be planning to hold in-person meetings for the rest of 2020. Both ministries are developing strategies to serve their community and decided that large gatherings inside a singular space are not the best way forward. Both ministries cited concerns over the safety of their church members.

J.D. Greear of Summit Church announced to his congregation that they are changing from 12,000 people in 12 locations to 15,000 people in 2,400 locations, and is urging his church to launch into a gathering of house churches. When our megachurches in America are adopting small, house-church models, it should be clear to all of us that we are in an unprecedented time.

These two churches are surely not going to be the last to make drastic changes to how they operate. Many of the changes we are currently seeing may last a lot longer than any of us expected just a few months ago. For those of us whose hope and anchor are in the Lord, the Church can offer something unique in times of crisis—eternal perspective. As one of our teammates says to us regularly these days, "The gospel is not in quarantine."

 The good news we have to share will always find a way forward, and I believe the Holy Spirit is helping church leaders navigate that opportunity in new and creative ways.

Standing for Our Legal Rights

As churches in the nation find solutions for today's social-distancing requirements, other churches and ministries are facing legal battles and defending their First Amendment rights. 

New York

At the end of June, a Federal Judge ruled that the mayor of New York had exceeded his authority by placing restrictions on religious services and outdoor meetings, which are protected under the First Amendment. Simultaneously, those same restrictions were not placed on the ongoing protests, which are also protected under the First Amendment. The District Court Judge ordered New York officials not to enforce any outdoor gathering limitations, as long as participants follow social distancing requirements.

An article by CBS News reports that the Department of Justice called the decision “a win for religious freedom and the civil liberties of New Yorkers."


We are seeing a similar story unfolding in California. The Governor of California not only restricted large church gatherings, but tried to expand that authority even further. The Governor's order prohibits all indoor worship services, including Bible studies in people's homes and singing.

Almost immediately, multiple churches in California filed lawsuits against the Governor to stop his order under a similar premise—there are not two First Amendments. 

In the lawsuit, the churches involved state they just want to be treated equally. They are willing to practice social distancing and follow the CDC's hygiene requirements. Therefore, the Governor has no authority to refuse to trust church staff and members in the same way it trusts other essential business. This is a crucial case to watch for anyone who is running Bible studies or in-home church gatherings.


This week, as many of you have seen all over the news, the Supreme Court refused to hear arguments about overturning a lower court decision to have churches subjected to stricter meeting rules than those of casinos, bars, and restaurants in Nevada. The state of Nevada places a hard cap of 50 people for any in-person gatherings for churches. At the same time, businesses (including casinos) are required to operate at 50% capacity and follow social distancing rules. A rural church in Reno, Calvary Chapel Dayton Valley, argued that a hard cap on religious meetings (while treating businesses differently) violated their First Amendment rights, and the rights of its members, to express their religion.

In a 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court refused to grant the request from Calvary Chapel Dayton Valley to be subjected to the same COVID-19 restrictions in Nevada that allow casinos, restaurants and other businesses to operate at 50% of capacity with proper social distancing. Consequently, this decision drew national attention and sharp criticism from the dissenting Supreme Court Justices.

An article by Time reports the following statements from Supreme Court Justices:

"We have a duty to defend the Constitution, and even a public health emergency does not absolve us of that responsibility," Justice Alito said. 

Justice Gorsuch stated even more strongly, "…there is no world in which the Constitution permits Nevada to favor Caesars Palace over Calvary Chapel."

Setting a Legal Precedent for the Future

While the Church is continuing to navigate the global pandemic and other long-standing problems, it is vital to fight for the Church's rights and not let a public health emergency absolve the Church of its legal rights and protections.

Each of these cases could set a legal precedent for how religious organizations' constitutional rights are interpreted in the future. It's important to note that in each of these cases, the religious organization is willing to abide by government rules applied to businesses for gatherings. Each also stated that they are following CDC regulations for religious communities, including social distancing, in order to meet and worship together.

Fortify Your Church's Legal Foundation

At the foundation of any church or ministry, having governing documents in place helps protect the organization from these sorts of issues and many others. Making sure you are running your church with excellence, or "above reproach," as the Bible requires for leaders in the church, is the first step to being able to exercise your rights as a religious ministry.

These cases touch on a topic that can be overwhelming to pastors and minstry leaders—the legal rights and restrictions of opening and operating a church. There's good news! We here at StartCHURCH are ready to help guide you through the process of securing your church or ministry’s legal foundation through the StartRIGHT Service. With the StartRIGHT Service, you can rest assured that you, the vision God planted in your heart, and the members of your church are protected. Give us a call today at 877-494-4655 or schedule a call below to speak to one of our specialists.

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Please feel free to comment. We always appreciate good dialogue. However, we do moderate each comment to ensure that it is on topic and not derogatory to other participants. We ask that you keep your comments brief and pertinent to the topic so that others may benefit.

Raul Rivera

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