Minnesota Churches Chafe at Mask Mandate, Sue Governor for Overreach

Minnesota Churches Chafe at Mask Mandate, Sue Governor for Overreach
Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz speaks to the press in St. Paul, Minnesota, on June 3, 2020. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)
Matthew Vadum

Three Christian churches and churchgoers in Minnesota filed suit in federal court Aug. 13 against Gov. Tim Walz for his pandemic-related executive orders mandating social distancing and the wearing of face masks during in-person religious worship services.

The plaintiffs in the lawsuit are Cornerstone Church of Alexandria and pastor Darryl Knappen; Land of Promise Church and pastor Gerald Ernst; and Lifespring Church and pastors Eric Anderson, Matthew Franzese, and Jeff Backer.

The plaintiffs argue that Walz, a Democrat, and other state officials are infringing on their First Amendment-protected religious liberties by limiting attendance at services, as well as by requiring face masks, and that worshipers keep a distance of six feet away from other worshipers.

The newly filed complaint asks the court to declare Minnesota’s combination of executive orders regarding social distancing and mask-wearing at church to be in conflict with the First and 14th Amendments of the U.S. Constitution.

Walz’s executive orders “have strayed far from Minnesota’s constitutional admonition that ‘the right of every man to worship God according to the dictates of his own conscience shall never be infringed,’” the complaint states, citing Article I, section 16 of the state constitution.

Violating the orders can lead to a conviction for a gross misdemeanor, accompanied by a fine of up to $3,000, plus up to a year in prison. Officials are also able to seek civil penalties of up $25,000 per violation from businesses, the complaint states.

The fiats don't “make any accommodations for religious practices by houses of worship, religious leaders or church-goers such as large religious gatherings, communal prayer, holding of hands, laying of hands, personal blessings and receiving communion,” the complaint states.

“Minnesota’s governor is wreaking havoc on the religious freedoms of the faithful. Christians of all denominations, Muslims, and Orthodox Jews are bound by their faith to worship together,” the plaintiffs’ attorney, Erick G. Kaardal, of the Minneapolis-based law firm of Mohrman, Kaardal & Erickson, said during a press conference conducted online.

 Erick G. Kaardal, attorney. (Courtesy Erick G. Kaardal)
Erick G. Kaardal, attorney. (Courtesy Erick G. Kaardal)

“Time-honored rites and rituals, including prayers, singing, communion, and a laying of hands in blessing, are among those elements that comprise the free exercise of religion, for which the First Amendment disallows the prohibition thereof,” said Kaardal, who brought the lawsuit under the auspices of the Chicago-based Thomas More Society, a public-interest law firm specializing in religious freedom issues.

“That is the central tenet of the complaint. It is only compounded by Walz’s expressly imposed no-exception, six-foot social distancing requirements on religious ceremonies in churches and Minnesota’s conflicting laws that concurrently criminalize wearing a mask as well as not wearing a mask.”

“Governor Walz, a former teacher, gets an F in religious liberties,” Kaardal added.

“Other states, including Texas, Illinois, and Ohio have excluded churches from COVID-19 mask mandates. Unlike Walz, those states have recognized that you cannot criminalize religious attendance at houses of worship for any reason.”

“We are also seeking a pronouncement that Walz’s executive orders violate the Minnesota Constitution’s Article III separation-of-powers provision,” he said. “Walz is exercising pure legislative lawmaking power—a thing only the legislature can constitutionally do.”

During the teleconference, Backer, who's also a Republican state representative in Minnesota, said: “People are being prosecuted and persecuted. They are not able to exercise their faith.”

Knappen said his congregation has been defying the executive orders.

“At Cornerstone Church, we have been practicing civil disobedience since May 3. We’ve been meeting publicly since that time, and informed the governor through a letter that we are doing that, come what may, and if people want to wear masks they’re welcome to do that, but the majority do not.”

Kaardal summed up the purpose of the new lawsuit.

“We are a religious people. The constitution reflects that. Governor, don’t you understand that you can’t prohibit religious practices? You’ve got to allow people to have communion, communal prayer, the laying of hands, personal blessings. It’s part of our response to the pandemic. And I’m sure that’s why the U.S. Supreme Court back in 1905 said if the government goes too far in a pandemic, the federal courts are still here to help. And so the battle now goes to the U.S. district court, because the governor has targeted houses of worship.”

Kaardal seemed to be referring to the Supreme Court’s ruling in Jacobson v. Massachusetts, in which the high court validated the authority of states to enforce compulsory vaccination laws.

The court found that individual liberty isn't absolute and can be subordinated to the police power of the state, but that there are also limits to what the government can compel during a public health emergency.

Walz’s office didn't immediately respond to a request by The Epoch Times for comment.