Firebrand lawyer leading crusade to reopen churches calls all shutdowns unconstitutional

Lawyer Mat Staver says he is more than willing to accept the “most difficult” cases of religious freedom related to the coronavirus.

The 64-year-old president of Liberty Counsel, a non-profit legal group he founded in 1989, emerged last month as a strong critic of orders issued in many states, limiting the number of people who can meet in person at church . Services. These orders, Staver told the Washington Examiner, are clear violations of the First Amendment – and amount to the establishment of a governmental faith, with its central principle of “micromanaging the form and practice of worship”.

“This is something that the government has no authority to do,” said Staver.

Under Staver’s leadership, Liberty Counsel has taken on several important cases since March, notably that of Rodney Howard-Browne, a Florida pastor who was arrested in early April after refusing to transfer his services online. He is also defending churches in Kentucky and Virginia, where pastors have clashed with the police for similar reasons. And, as May approaches, he is asking all the churches, in one petition led by Staver, to start this weekend the process of resuming face-to-face services.

This petition, Staver said, is designed to allow the church’s openings to coincide with the annual National Day of Prayer, which usually takes place on May 7. Inviting members to return to their buildings, while still respecting social detachment guidelines, said Staver, religious leaders. We can recognize that the country is starting to turn the corner and that religious practices can begin to return to normal.

Even churches located in states whose governments extend shutdowns until May, or later, should consider reopening in some way, Staver added. It is a suggestion that pulls the thread of most of his recent actions: the belief that any government tries to move churches online, while allowing groceries, drinks and home goods stores to keep doors open, “smells like a constitutional violation. ”

“Churches, unlike Home Depot and other stores, have a constitutional right to exist,” said Staver. “The other stores don’t.”

This line of argument has achieved mixed results in the courts. A federal judge in Kentucky in April ruled against a church that Liberty Counsel represents, saying that churches do not need to meet in person to function as houses of worship. In the same week, a New Mexico judge issued a similar decision, as did the Kansas Supreme Court earlier this month, after Governor Laura Kelly issued an order limiting services to 10 people.

Even Howard-Browne, who, after his arrest, was justified when Florida Governor Ron DeSantis exempted churches from his request to stay at home, changed Palm Sunday services online, citing health problems. Liberty Counsel has not yet received a decision in Virginia, but most federal judges ruled that the temporary ban on personal services does not reach the level of a constitutional violation.

At the same time, judges in Tennessee and Kentucky found that governments trying to suppress churches that perform drive-in services violate the First Amendment, as well as the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, a federal law that prohibits governments from unduly burdening religious institutions. Drive-ins received national attention when Attorney General William Barr published a statement supporting the ability of a Mississippi church to perform such services.

Although Staver agrees with Barr’s view of the drive-in churches and said that he would gladly represent one, he also said that the attorney general followed the “easier” path, supporting the churches in a case where the main issue was the constitutionality of a local community. prohibit the choice of unequal treatment. In Staver’s mind, the most pressing question is whether or not all prohibitions should be allowed. After all, the government that limits size numbers at church meetings, he said, is actually a ban on its existence.

“If they can limit you, without giving you the opportunity to engage in social detachment and other types of sanitizing efforts that secular companies are allowed to do, then they can just say that you don’t exist,” he said.

Staver also disputes the argument that, because these prohibitions are temporary, they do not pose a serious threat to religious freedom. Your vision runs contrary to that of many of his fellow religious freedom fighters, who say that rights can be temporarily suspended if the government can prove a “convincing interest” in doing so.

“The First Amendment doesn’t have a pause button and it doesn’t have a temporary pause button,” said Staver. “There is nothing to say that you can really violate the Constitution, as long as it is only for a temporary period: constitutional law never disappears. In fact, it is even more important in a time of crisis, when people want to pretend that there is no “.

These positions correspond to Staver’s long history of controversial postures in cases of religious freedom. As dean of the law school at the University of Liberdade, he defended college in 2012, after the Affordable Care Act employer’s mandate required it to provide forms of birth control that the school considered abortive. The court maintained the mandate.

Staver received international attention in 2015 by representing Kim Davis, a Kentucky county employee who refused to issue marriage licenses to gay couples, following the Supreme Court benchmark Obergefell v. Hodges decision. Staver also served as Davis’s press officer when the case became a frenzy of the international press.

After Davis was arrested for disrespecting the court, Staver said he had been informed of a meeting of more than 100,000 Christian Peruvians who supported Davis. When that incident was never found, Staver apologized, calling his promotion an “honest mistake”, adding that he nevertheless knew many people who supported Davis.

Shortly after Davis’ release, Staver organized a meeting between her and Pope Francis, at which he said that Francis told Davis to “stay strong” before giving him two-thirds. The Vatican later clarified that it had met with Davis along with several dozen others, who had received rosaries. A Vatican spokesman suggested that Staver manipulated the encounter to polish Davis’s image. Staver has sustained that his defense of Davis was his best effort to protect a Christian against a “lawless” Supreme Court decision.

It is a defense that Staver also uses in his defense of the churches during a shutdown, saying that governments are causing serious injustice to people of faith.

“I think what they did,” he said, “took the scales of justice and literally removed the First Amendment on one side as if it didn’t exist.”

Paula Fonseca