Liberty Counsel has now filed an appeal with the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals in a religious discrimination case it filed against Colorado Gov. Jared Polis and other state officials on behalf of Andrew Wommack Ministries International (AWMI), Inc.
AWMI is a nonprofit charitable corporation and religious ministry that offers Christian and biblically based conferences, seminars, events, and other religious gatherings. Its affiliated ministry, Charis Bible College, offers in-person and online biblical education courses to its approximately 652 enrolled students.
AWMI is suing Gov. Polis, Jill Hunsaker Ryan, executive director of the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, and Jacqueline Revello, director of Teller County Department of Public Health and Environment.
In its 98-page complaint with a more than 600-page appendix, it argues that the state’s policies discriminate against religious organizations and their ministries and gatherings by treating them differently than non-religious organizations and their gatherings.
On Monday, Liberty Counsel initially requested a Colorado District Court to issue a temporary restraining order and preliminary injunction against roughly 17 executive orders issued by Colorado Gov. Jared Polis. The court quickly denied its request, prompting Liberty Counsel to appeal.
Liberty Counsel is now requesting that the appeals court issue an injunction, pending appeal “to address the serious constitutional problems with the discriminatory orders restricting religious gatherings” in Colorado.
Polis’ orders restrict AWMI from hosting religious gatherings, events, conferences, ministries, and activities depending on an arbitrarily imposed numerical and capacity limitation of 175 people, which is not imposed on non-religious organizations or events. The governor has encouraged large protests throughout the state where no social distancing or other health guidelines have been enforced. This presents a pattern of discrimination by the state, the plaintiffs argue.
Worse still, the governor’s orders impose discriminatory and disparate prohibitions on the types of activities that AWMI may engage in at their own facilities. For example, the governor allows AWMI to feed the hungry, clothe the poor, house the homeless, provide other material and essential social services to an unlimited number of individuals with unlimited volunteers in a single facility, as long as social distancing is practiced.
AWMI facilities can seat up to 5,000 people; the main auditorium/sanctuary seats 3,100 individuals; classrooms and event spaces can host up to 1,900 individuals.
But if AWMI engages in a religious conference, ministry, event, gathering, or service with the same individuals in the same facility, they can have no more than 175 people participating– or face criminal penalties.
In essence, a religious organization can provide non-religious services to more than 175 people– up to 5,000– in the same locations where it can only provide religious services to less than 175 people.
Liberty Counsel Founder and Chairman Mat Staver explains, “Governor Jared Polis has clearly discriminated against religious gatherings. The distinction between religious and nonreligious gatherings has nothing to do with health and safety. The virus does not favor one or the other. This blatant discrimination reveals that Governor Polis has an agenda disguised as health and safety. There is no pandemic pause button to the Constitution, nor is there an exception for religious gatherings.”
The district judge denied Liberty Counsel’s request, arguing, “Numerous courts have considered, and persuasively rejected, nearly identical arguments.”
Gov. Polis’ office says it does not comment on pending litigation.
In response to the court’s denial, Staver said, “The virus does not discriminate between nonreligious and religious gatherings, but Gov. Jared Polis does. There is no constitutional justification to treat nonreligious gatherings better than religious gatherings. The First Amendment gives preferential treatment to the free exercise of religion. We look forward presenting arguments to the Court of Appeals, and even the Supreme Court, at some time in the future. This case is far from over.”