As some U.S. churches seek to open their doors for in-person services, a group of mostly evangelical Christian religious leaders is urging Congress to grant faith-based organizations legal immunity from coronavirus-related negligence lawsuits.
In a letter submitted to the Senate Committee on the Judiciary on Tuesday, nearly 300 religious leaders said they’re concerned about facing a “swarm of lawsuits” from people who will claim they’ve contracted COVID-19 at a house of worship or while receiving services from a religious charity.
As a result, the religious leaders want Congress to include liability limitations for religious organizations in the next COVID-19 economic recovery package.
“There is legitimate concern that some people — and their lawyers — will cherry pick certain guidelines from around the nation in order to assign liability to religious organizations,” the letter stated.
The cost of defending itself in a negligence lawsuit could cause a faith-based charity to shutter, the leaders wrote.
“Indeed, the mere threat of litigation may cause many religious organizations to remain closed far beyond what is necessary,” the letter states.
Most of the letter’s signers appear to be evangelical Christians, including some prominent figures such as the evangelist Franklin Graham, Southern Baptist leader Albert Mohler, and Family Research Council president Tony Perkins.
Their involvement highlights just how neatly issues that are important to evangelicals line up with the priorities of the Republican Party.
As coronavirus restrictions begin lifting in parts of the country, Republican leaders have pushed liability limitations a way to encourage businesses to reopen. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has suggested that the issue needs to be resolved before Congress doles out any additional aid to states. The Kentucky senator announced Tuesday that he’s spearheading a coronavirus liability bill that he says would protect “businesses, nonprofits, governments and workers and schools” from virus-related litigation.
On the other hand, Democrats are wary that these protections could limit workers’ rights and safety during the pandemic.
The religious leaders’ letter was submitted on the same day that the Senate Judiciary Committee held a hearing about limiting businesses’ liability during the pandemic.
The letter was organized by the First Liberty Institute, a prominent player in the Christian legal defense movement, which seeks to advance and protect conservative religious values.
Christian legal groups have adopted a range of stances on worship during the pandemic. Some are actively encouraging churches to reopen en masse with safety measures in place, in defiance of the stay-at-home orders issued by local and state authorities.
Others, like the First Liberty Institute, say that governmental requests to temporarily halt in-person church gatherings are fine as long as religious groups aren’t being singled out. The leaders named in the letter are seeking liability protections from “negligence suits resulting from [religious groups] serving the public or reopening in accordance with local orders.”
Religious organizations have the same legal obligations that businesses have to exercise reasonable care to protect the health and safety of the people they serve, according to Timothy Lytton, a Georgia State University law professor who researches health and safety regulations. In light of COVID-19, that might mean wearing masks when interacting with others in close proximity, following public health guidelines, and conforming to the standards of other similar organizations in their area, he said.
Failing to exercise reasonable care could potentially expose houses of worship to a lawsuit. Still, Lytton said the religious leaders’ fear of a wave of COVID-19 lawsuits is “greatly exaggerated,” partly because of how hard it would be for a plaintiff to definitely prove they contracted the virus from a particular organization.
The fear of liability exposure will likely help religious organizations bent on opening to focus on proceeding with reasonable care, Lytton said. But granting these groups immunity from lawsuits could be risky.
“Immunity from liability would be a dangerous green light to those rare religious organizations and businesses that are in a rush to reopen without being sufficiently mindful of the need to proceed with caution,” he said.