Jackson County pays settlement, ending legal battle with church over pandemic restrictions

(The Center Square) – After nearly two months of shutdowns as the COVID-19 pandemic swept across Missouri, Jackson County in May 2020 initiated the first phase of a reopening plan that allowed some businesses previously deemed non-essential to reopen if they followed guidelines that restricted the number of people allowed inside their buildings.

The plan allowed retail stores, personal services, restaurants and bars serving food to reopen. Operators had to restrict the number of patrons inside their businesses through a formula based on the square footage of their buildings.

While the plan accommodated variations for different businesses, churches remained subject to a 10-person gathering limit regardless of their buildings’ square footage.

That prompted a 21-page lawsuit filed by Abundant Life Baptist Church, which operates two churches in eastern Jackson County in Lee’s Summit and Blue Springs, against the county, its health department and University Health, for “unconstitutional and unlawful discrimination against religious institutions and persons in orders and plans.”

Abundant Life argued in its federal lawsuit filed in the U.S. Western District of Missouri that Jackson County’s “orders impermissibly discriminate against religiously-motivated gatherings, and in favor of commercially-motivated gatherings.”

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, Abundant Life Baptist Church’s Lee Summit church usually drew up to 4,500 worshipers to its Sunday services, according to the lawsuit. Abundant Life’s Blue Springs church can accommodate nearly 1,500 people, it said.

“What we object to here in Jackson County is not the base restrictions, it’s that the restrictions are especially biting for churches,” church attorney Jonathan Whitehead said in the lawsuit. “When you compare it to retail stores and bars and restaurants, they’re engaged in similar conduct.”

Abundant Life maintained it suffered “harms” under each phase of the county’s reopening plan, maintaining its “religious exercise has been burdened.”

The lawsuit states that Abundant Life was “forced to cancel or turn away persons from services of corporate worship and to reduce ministry to members and the public or use less effective methods such as internet streaming services.”

Abundant Life “has been unable to operate or employ its staff consistent with its beliefs and activities. The (reopening plan) has also rendered (Abundant Life) unable to use its employees and its property to offer and provide physical and spiritual help, including, without limitation, preaching, corporate prayer, and other corporate worship to all who seek it,” the lawsuit states.

Abundant Life’s lawsuit was one of several filed by churches nationwide that claimed pandemic stay-at-home orders discriminated against them and unconstitutionally interfered with their free exercise of religion, including in Illinois, Michigan, Virginia and California.

Jackson County and other defendants in the lawsuit failed to get the case dismissed. The U.S. Supreme Court in a 5-4 ruling in April determined California’s regulation limiting the size of Bible studies and prayer meetings was unconstitutional.

Citing mounting costs in defending the restrictions and the Supreme Court ruling, the Jackson County Legislature on Monday in a 6-2 vote approved a settlement agreement with Abundant Life to pay its legal fees in exchange for dropping the lawsuit.

The county will pay $146,750 to cover Whitehead’s fees and agreed that any future health restrictions would not be stricter for churches than for commercial operations.

Under the agreement, the county will pay $73,375 as will University Health, formerly Truman Medical Centers, which operates the Jackson County Health Department.

“We were going to lose,” Jackson County Legislature Chair Dan Tarwater told the Kansas City Star afterward. “I kind of wanted to wait and see if we could win,” but county attorneys said that was unlikely.

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