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St. Louis County church mounts constitutional challenge to restrictions on gatherings


A Fenton church is suing St. Louis County and various officials, alleging the current restrictions on gatherings infringe upon its First Amendment rights. 

In a lawsuit filed with the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Missouri Wednesday, Church of the Word alleged St. Louis County’s executive orders — enacting restrictions on gatherings and businesses to mitigate the COVID-19 pandemic — are unconstitutional. The church argued the orders “treat the religious gatherings less favorably than similar secular gatherings” and are “not narrowly tailored.” 

While Missouri is under a statewide reopening plan, counties and municipalities are able to enact more stringent policies. St. Louis County has been one of the hardest-hit regions in the state with more than 370 coronavirus-related deaths.

Churches are able to operate as long as the services have an occupancy that does not exceed 25 percent of the fire code and congregants practice social distancing, County Executive Sam Page said Wednesday morning. Page also encouraged churchgoers to wear masks. 

But Church of the Word, which can seat 120 people in its sanctuary, argued that in-person gatherings of its congregation are “fundamental to [its] religion” and mission. 

The executive orders “constitute overbroad restrictions and substantial, undue burdens on [the church’s] right to participate in the Gatherings and to assemble to exercise their religious belief that they must worship together as a religious body as commanded by the Holy Bible,” the lawsuit alleged. 

“Our constitutional challenge is that your First Amendment right to assemble or congregate or gather in your faith and free exercise of religion is a fundamental right which must be protected,” Church of the Word’s attorney David Gregory told The Missouri Times. 

Gregory, a Republican state representative, also said: “Our hope is that we succeed and set a strong precedent for other churches and places of worship in the future.” 

A representative from Page’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment. 

The church seeks a temporary restraining order as well as an injunction. It names Page and Dr. Emily Doucette, the acting director and chief medical officer of the county’s Department of Public Health.

The case has been assigned to Judge Sarah Pitlyk, who was confirmed to the bench late last year after being appointed by President Trump. 

EDITOR’S NOTE: For up-to-date information on coronavirus, check with the CDC and DHSS.