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ADF to MA town: Stop harassing church that wants to have services of 10 or fewer people

Letter says Dedham officials must rescind order preventing church from having small services allowed under governor’s COVID-19 order

Wednesday, May 13, 2020

Attorney sound bite:  Ryan Tucker

DEDHAM, Mass. – Alliance Defending Freedom sent a letter to Dedham town officials Wednesday that calls upon them to immediately rescind a cease-and-desist order that prohibits a local church from meeting even with 10 or fewer people, a gathering size allowed under the Massachusetts governor’s COVID-19 emergency order. The town sent the order on May 6 to Victory Baptist Church after the church announced on its website that it planned to start holding services of no more than 10 people each on May 10.

“The government can certainly concern itself with public health and safety, but it can’t target churches for special punishments that it doesn’t dole out to anyone else,” said ADF Senior Counsel Ryan Tucker. “It makes no sense for the town of Dedham to demand that this church refrain from meeting with 10 or fewer people when the governor’s executive order explicitly allows that gathering size. The only apparent explanation is that the town wants to harass this church.”

Before receiving the town’s cease-and-desist letter, Pastor Nick White of Victory Baptist Church made clear in his online announcement that the services scheduled for Mother’s Day would be limited to no more than 10 people per service to “comply with the guidelines that…Gov. Baker has set forth for the State of Massachusetts.” If more than 10 congregants signed up to attend, the church intended to add as many services as required to allow congregants to exercise their constitutionally protected freedom to assemble and freely worship but still abide by the executive order’s 10-person limit.

In addition, the church imposed conditions on itself beyond those required under the executive order for any 10-person gathering, whether secular or religious. Those conditions included requiring congregants to provide advance notice by text or online sign-up to attend “one of our social-distanced services,” limiting each service to no more than one hour, placing a one-hour buffer between services to do a “deep sanitization” of the church after each service and at the conclusion of the final service, taking each congregant’s temperature at the door with an infrared, non-contact thermometer and prohibiting anyone with a temperature of 99 degrees or above from entering the church, issuing and requiring congregants to wear latex- and powder-free gloves and a mask, spacing each chair eight feet apart, and providing no childcare. Finally, White exhorted elderly congregants and those with underlying health conditions “to stay home.”

“Victory Baptist did not host services last Sunday, but it plans to do so this coming Sunday, May 17, 2020, pursuant to the plans expressed in its previous announcement. And it should be permitted to do so without fear of disruption,” the ADF letter states. “For these reasons, we demand that the Board and Town of Dedham rescind the Order by 12:00 p.m. on May 14, 2020, and refrain from further harassment of this church.”

Alliance Defending Freedom is an alliance-building, non-profit legal organization that advocates for the right of people to freely live out their faith.
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ABOUT Ryan Tucker

Ryan Tucker serves as senior counsel and director of the Center for Christian Ministries with Alliance Defending Freedom. He oversees all litigation efforts to maintain and defend the constitutionally protected freedom of churches, Christian ministries and religious schools to exercise their rights under the First Amendment. Prior to joining ADF, Tucker engaged in private practice for over 16 years with a litigation boutique law firm in San Antonio, Texas, eight of those as a partner. His portfolio included all aspects of civil litigation, both state and federal, with a particular focus on commercial and complex business disputes. Tucker earned his Juris Doctor at Baylor Law School, where he was a senior editor of the Baylor Law Review. He obtained his bachelor of business administration in management at Texas A&M University, where he graduated cum laude. A member of the state bar in Texas and Arizona, Tucker is admitted to practice in the U.S. Supreme Court and multiple federal district and appellate courts.