UPDATE: As of Friday the plaintiffs will no longer pursue the following lawsuit, as Gov. Whitmer added language in a new executive order that allows residents to participate in public religious worship without being penalized. Lawyers say the interested parties will still participate in other lawsuits against Whitmer through amicus briefs, as they believe her extension of the state of emergency was unlawful and invalid.
A number of Michigan-based churches are suing Governor Gretchen Whitmer for “unlawfully” issuing executive orders to extend the state of emergency, prohibiting individuals from participating in public religious worship amid the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.
The lawsuit, filed Wednesday, claims that Whitmer has infringed upon the plaintiffs’ First Amendment rights to freely exercise religion and freely assemble against “unwarranted government intrusion." The plaintiffs also claim that the Michigan Constitution protects the religious rights of residents, as well as their freedom to associate and assemble.
Under Whitmer’s current executive orders, places of religious worship will not be penalized for allowing worship at their locations. However, the plaintiffs argue that Whitmer’s orders do not specifically protect the individuals who choose to worship at these locations, therefore keeping them from doing so.
The state’s current stay-at-home order does require individuals to stay home while prohibiting public and private gatherings among persons who don’t live in the same household. These measures have been implemented to help prevent the spread of COVID-19 as case numbers and deaths continue to rise throughout the state.
The document goes on to argue that Whitmer issued numerous executive orders without legal authority or legislative approval, deeming her actions unlawful and unjust. Michigan legislators have made the same argument and filed a lawsuit against Whitmer on Wednesday for extending the state of emergency.
Michigan House Speaker Lee Chatfield said the legislators’ lawsuit against Whitmer was filed due to her “failure to comply with existing state law and for her disregard of the Michigan Constitution.”
The churches’ lawsuit argues that Whitmer was “required to obtain approval from the Legislature to extend the state of emergency and any EOs issued pursuant to the emergency” after the first 28 days lapsed.
While calling for the courts to deem the Emergency Powers Act unconstitutional, the plaintiffs are also requesting that the “unauthorized” executive orders are revoked.
The following churches and individuals have filed the lawsuit against Whitmer with the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Michigan:
- Word of Faith Christian Center Church (WOFCCC)
- Keith Butler, Bishop of WOFCCC
- Tim Schmig
- Whole Life Church
- Chuck Vizthum, Pastor of Whole Life Church
- Northern Michigan Baptist Bible Church (NMBCC)
- Stanley “Rusty” Chatfield III, Pastor of NMBCC and father to House Speaker Lee Chatfield -- who is part of the legislative group suing Whitmer in a separate lawsuit
In the document, WOFCCC and NMBCC say they intend to reopen in-person religious services in May with safety precautions in place.
“I am happy to work with the legislature,” Whitmer said of the legislators’ lawsuit against her. “Ideally, we can get on the same page, but I cannot negotiate like this is a political issue. We need to listen to the experts, welcome partnership from both sides of the aisle. This needs to be all hands on deck. The enemy is the virus. There has been good work done together.”