A coalition of more than 300 religious leaders and organizations, including churches, synagogues and faith-based nonprofits, added their voices to a letter asking the Senate Judiciary Committee to advance legislation that would protect faith groups from lawsuits as they reopen facilities and serve the public during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Some 15 states have passed laws limiting liability for businesses and health care providers during the pandemic, according to reporting by Deseret News, and religious groups are asking for similar protections as Congress mulls federal limited-liability protections for businesses.
“Churches, synagogues and America’s houses of worship have provided critical care, comfort and calm in the midst of the uncertainty caused by a worldwide pandemic,” said Kelly Shackelford, president and chief counsel for First Liberty Institute, in a statement. “As America begins to reopen, Congress should provide America’s houses of worship the assurance that America’s faith communities can continue to be good Samaritans to the oppressed and the downtrodden.”
The signers of the letter, compiled and submitted by First Liberty Institute, a national religious freedom law firm, represent churches, synagogues and parachurch organizations. Among them are BGEA’s Franklin Graham; Christian psychologist and author James Dobson; Dave Welch, president of the U.S. Pastor Council; California pastor Jim Garlow; theologian R. Albert Mohler Jr.; and several rabbis, including Yaakov Rich of Congregation Toras Chaim in Dallas and Pesach Lerner, president of the Coalition for Jewish Values.
The letter makes the case that faith groups, which have been crucial during the coronavirus response, might scale back or drop their services with even the threat of a lawsuit. And, as First Liberty has argued, taking commonsense, good-faith precautions might not be enough to stave off a lawsuit if someone were to contract the virus, especially with so many conflicting policies on the city, county, state and national levels.
“It’s important to ensure churches are not going to be sued by somebody who … is upset that of the 50 different regulations or guidelines, a place of worship only followed 49,” Michael Berry, senior counsel at First Liberty Institute, told Deseret News.
“The goal would be to deter people to seek out opportunities to sue,” he added.
The letter to the Senate Judiciary Committee states: “We propose that Congress act swiftly to provide immunity or limited liability for religious organizations from negligence suits resulting from their serving the public or reopening in accordance with local orders.
“America’s faith communities and places of worship have always been at the forefront of ensuring that the hungry are fed, the naked are clothed and the homeless are sheltered. First Liberty Institute therefore urges Congress to provide the assurance that America’s faith communities can continue to be good Samaritans to the oppressed and the downtrodden as our nation begins its slow rebuilding.”
Some news outlets have suggested limiting liability for businesses and faith groups could become partisan, as Democrats are expected to oppose many of the liability protections on grounds of protecting workers’ rights. But Senate Republicans, led by Sens. John Cornyn of Texas and Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, have argued the protections would be “temporary and targeted” and would not protect bad actors who break labor laws.
“Leader McConnell and I, and others, are working on a proposal that would put commonsense reforms in place and protect those acting in good faith from being sued into oblivion,” Cornyn said in remarks to the Senate on May 18.
Above: People wait in their cars to receive food boxes at the C3 Church Food Pantry in Portland, Oregon, on April 21.
Photo: Alex Milan Tracy/Sipa USA/Newscom