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Indiana Attorney General says Indianapolis ban on religious gatherings is unconstitutional

City disagrees
Houses of worship reevaluating security plans, safety strategies
Posted at 6:43 PM, May 14, 2020
and last updated 2020-05-14 19:06:42-04

INDIANAPOLIS — Indiana Attorney General Curtis Hill says the City of Indianapolis' COVID-19 restrictions, which limit the number of people who can attend a religious service, are unconstitutional.

Hill, in one of his last acts before a 30-day suspension forces him out of office, sent a letter Thursday to Indianapolis Mayor Joe Hogsett and Marion County Public Health Department Director Dr. Virginia Caine.

Restrictions on worship services recently issued by the city veer into “unconstitutional and unlawful religious discrimination,” Hill wrote.

The restrictions, which were updated this week, limit participation in religious services within Marion County to 25 people, an increase of 15 from previous restrictions. Hill said the same order does not impose the same restrictions on other essential businesses, even though places of worship are considered as essential businesses.

“The Supreme Court of the United States has made clear that the First Amendment prohibits the government from singling out people for disfavored treatment because they are religious,” Hill wrote in the latter.

Churches, synagogues and other places of worship must be treated the same as non-religious entities, he wrote.

“During this difficult time, it is reasonable to expect all Hoosiers to make sacrifices to prevent the spread of the easily transferred COVID-19 virus, including by tolerating restrictions on gatherings and assemblies,” Attorney General Hill wrote. “Yet government officials must continue to respect the core civil right to be free from unlawful discrimination, including with respect to the free exercise of religion.”

Taylor Schaffer, a spokesperson for the mayor, said the city disagrees with Hill. The restriction, she said, "is a rule of general applicability regulating any public gathering."

"Dr. Caine’s order reasonably concludes that entities that gather people together for the purposes of in-person interaction pose a greater communicable disease threat than retail stores that one enters to make a purchase and leave. Indeed, the state’s own orders have, until quite recently, consistently created the same distinction," Schaffer said. "It would be our hope that the Acting Attorney General and his staff will engage in a dialogue with the Marion County Public Health Department and reconsider their position."

WRTV has also reached out to the health department for a response.