Church Leaders Sue Michigan Governor Whitmer Over Coronavirus Stay-At-Home Order

Three church leaders joined a small group in suing Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer Wednesday over her recent extensions of the statewide stay-at-home order.

Filed by Great Lakes Justice Center (GLJC) on behalf of three pastors, three churches and one individual, the lawsuit alleged Whitmer's executive orders prevented the free exercise of religion granted by both the federal and state constitutions.

"The Constitution does not become irrelevant during any emergency, including a pandemic," GLJC said in a Wednesday news release. "Just because a governor has ink in her pen does not mean the Constitution authorizes her to use it, notwithstanding good intentions."

The lawsuit alleged Whitmer's executive orders extending the state of emergency on and after April 30 were illegal because she issued them without approval from the state legislature. According to the lawsuit, executive orders like the ones Whitmer issued outside the 28-day window following her original declaration of a state of emergency are not democratic.

"Allowing one person to wield absolute power is not a republican form of government, it is tyranny," GLJC said.

Word of Faith Christian Center Church, Whole Life Church and Northern Michigan Baptist Bible Church were all named as plaintiffs in the lawsuit. Whitmer, who was named as the suit's sole defendant, did not respond to Newsweek's request for comment in time for publication.

Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer
Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer stands on stage at a General Motors event on January 27, 2020 in Hamtramck, Michigan. On May 6, Whitmer was sued by church leaders in Michigan who alleged her executive orders issued in response to the coronavirus pandemic infringed on their First Amendment rights to freely practice religion. Bill Pugliano/Getty

Whitmer has been the target of several lawsuits in recent weeks as a result of her response to the coronavirus pandemic, which has set some of the strictest statewide rules in the nation. According to Johns Hopkins University data, Michigan was the state with the seventh greatest number of confirmed COVID-19 cases as of Thursday morning, with more than 45,000 cases and 4,200 deaths reported.

Republican leaders in the state legislature filed their second lawsuit this week against Whitmer Wednesday, alleging she did not have the power to extend the state of emergency without their approval. In addition to his vocal support for the legislature's suit against Whitmer, Speaker of the Michigan House Lee Chatfield has a tie to the GLJC suit: his father, Stanley Chatfield III, is named as a co-plaintiff in the case and is the pastor of the Northern Michigan Baptist Bible Church.

While one of Whitmer's executive orders mentioned in the lawsuit exempted places of worship and their owners from legal penalties for making operational decisions "consistent with prior guidance," GLJC argued the order does not protect individuals who wish to worship from the same penalties. As a result of the fear of punishment for practicing religion, GLJC said the plaintiffs suffered "irreparable harm" in ways that include "the loss of their fundamental constitutional rights."

In anticipation of some religious organizations' plans to reopen in May, GLJC requested a swift decision to block any punishments that it said individuals feared might come as a result of their attendance at church services.

"If Walmart and Home Depot can open and sell goods to customers while following CDC guidelines, surely churches can do the same," attorney David Kallman with GLJC said in a news release.

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