COLORADO, USA — The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) filed a statement of interest in support of a Weld County church that is suing Gov. Jared Polis' (D-Colorado) public health order that restricts the number of people who are allowed to gather to attend service.
High Plains Harvest Church (HPHC), located at 108 1st St. in Ault, filed the lawsuit Monday in district court and argues that the health order violates their First Amendment right to freedom of religion.
In the church's complaint, they argue there's no valid reason people can gather at a hardware store but not for in-person religious services.
The suit argues that it's "perfectly legal" for hundreds of shoppers to pack into a Lowes store, but if 50 people gather together to worship, they risk fines or even imprisonment.
The suit names both Polis and Jill Hunsaker Ryan, the executive director of the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE), as defendants.
High Plains Harvest Church pastor Mark Hotaling has a "sincerely held religious belief that in-person attendance at church is central to his faith," the lawsuit says.
Current public health orders (PHO) ban all public and private gatherings with more than 10 people except for “necessary activities," and, according to the suit, religious activities are not considered a "necessary activity." If it was, the suit argues, there would be no set numerical limit on the number of people who could attend.
Grocery stores, produce stands, gas stations, marijuana dispensaries, liquor stores and hardware stores are among those essential businesses. Under the guidance listed in the PHO, religious gatherings are permitted only as long as the gatherings are with 10 people or less.
The DOJ, in its 22-page filing, says the United States explains that because Colorado appears to be treating similarly situated non-religious activity, such as in-person dining in restaurants, better than places of worship, these actions may constitute a violation of the church’s constitutional right to the free exercise of religion.
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