High Plains Harvest Church files lawsuit against Gov. Polis continuing to limit religious services amid pandemic

A church in Northern Colorado is suing Gov. Jared Polis and Jill Ryan, executive director of Colorado Department of Health and Environment, alleging that the state’s capacity limit on in-person gatherings discriminates against religious organizations.

The lawsuit, filed May 25 by pastor Mark Hotaling and High Plains Harvest Church in the Weld County town of Ault, claims the government has caused irreparable and undue hardship on the organization by limiting in-person gatherings to 10 people or less, and that restricting how Coloradans worship is a violation of the Constitution.

Further, it alleges religious organizations are being unfairly singled out while other businesses are able to welcome patrons.

“Plaintiffs feel as though they have stepped through the looking glass into a world where the right to shop for gardening supplies and home improvement materials is protected by the Constitution, while meeting as a body to worship God corporately has been relegated to the category of unnecessary of even superfluous,” the lawsuit reads.

Hotaling decided to sue after visiting a Lowe’s where he saw hundreds of people in line to get in, the lawsuit said.

“It is a religious liberties issue. You can go to Lowe’s or Home Depot, and hundreds of people are buying lumber and gardening supplies,” Hotaling told CBS4. “It is time for the church to have the same freedom that a big box store has.”

A spokesman for Gov. Polis said his office does not comment on pending litigation.

As the coronavirus pandemic shuttered businesses, schools and other communal spaces across the Centennial State in early spring, many religious institutions moved worship services, education classes and even offering plates online. But as the state gradually reopens, this lawsuit underscores the tension some feel between their religious freedom of expression and the government’s continued intervention.

In May, President Donald Trump demanded that states allow “essential places of faith” to reopen for the weekend and threatened to overrule those that defied him, according to The New York Times.

Under both Polis’ stay at home order and safer at home guidelines, religious institutions have been considered critical operations and allowed to offer services, such as funerals, to groups of up to 10 people while adhering to social distancing guidelines. That closes the door on most weekly worship services, and churches, synagogues and mosques said they are suffering financially because of those restrictions.

On Monday, Polis proposed new rules that would increase the indoor capacity for houses of worship to 50% or up to 50 people.

Colorado Muslim Society, which has about 3,000 members, closed March 12 and is figuring out logistics on how it can safely open spokeswoman Iman Jodeh said.

“Muslims pray five times a day and since we don’t sit in pews, we prostrate and sit on the carpet. We do put our forehead and nose to the carpet,” said Jodeh. “The decision [to close] for us was, were we able to disinfect and sanitize between each prayer?”

Though some Catholic churches began hosting limited, in-person services in mid-May, other Christian churches told The Denver Post they were waiting and closely following guidelines from the governor and the Centers for Disease Control closely.

Experts agree that the risk of transmission for the novel coronavirus is exceptionally higher in indoor spaces, compared to open-air — up to 19 times greater according to a recent, yet-to-be-published paper in Japan, said Shelly Miller, professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Colorado Boulder

The two biggest risk factors are population density in a building and ventilation, said John Zhai, another professor at the University of Colorado Boulder. Zhai, who specializes in building engineering, is studying the efficacy of social distancing and ventilation in preventing the spread of COVID-19, and found through his research that droplets from talking can carry the airborne illness up to nearly 10 feet. Large droplets can travel even further, up to 26 feet even without wind, Zhai said by email.

“Activities such as singing and coughing will largely increase the exhaled droplet numbers — in the order of 10 to 100 — and the transmission distance, due to the larger opening of mouth and momentum of the exhalation,” Zhai said. “If the density can be cut by half, our study shows that it may reduce infection rate by 20% to 40% during the first 30 minutes of [an] event under current ventilation practices.”

High Plains Harvest Church had asked for court order to temporarily overrule the capacity limit for houses of worship, however, the motion was withdrawn, said attorney Barry Arrington, who is representing pastor Hotaling. The lawsuit is pending.

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