Influential right-wing and anti-LGBTQ groups have responded to stay-at-home orders put in place to protect Americans from the coronavirus by pushing for exemptions for churches and pastors, including by filing lawsuits, pressuring local and state governments, and working with the Trump-Pence administration.
These groups -- which often use the guise of religious liberty to fight against LGBTQ rights and other progressive causes -- have also used or mirrored right-wing media coverage to spread their message. For instance, representatives from Alliance Defending Freedom and First Liberty made appearances on Fox News to discuss separate cases they filed in Greeneville, Mississippi. The Family Research Council has worked with the Trump-Pence administration to establish exemptions for churches and religious leaders. It has used its right-wing radio show, the evangelical media empire Christian Broadcasting Network, and weekly calls with pastors to spread its message and help President Donald Trump boost his reelection efforts. Additionally, Liberty Counsel has launched a “ReOpen Church” campaign targeting a May 3 date, which mirrors the broader far-right “ReOpen” protests across the country that have been boosted by right-wing media and Trump.
The following anti-LGBTQ groups have worked through the legal system or with the Trump-Pence administration to push back against restrictions for churches in the stay-at-home orders:
Alliance Defending Freedom
Extreme anti-LGBTQ group Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) has represented religious leaders and churches in at least four states -- Kansas, Mississippi, North Carolina, and Tennessee -- and has engaged with or gotten support from the Trump-Pence administration around COVID-19 restrictions and response. ADF has said it has fielded an average of 100 inquiries per day from churches and religious organizations concerned about COVID-19 restrictions.
ADF is one of the biggest and most powerful anti-LGBTQ legal groups in the world, with thousands of allied attorneys across the world and even in government positions across the U.S., including in the federal government. It regularly uses the courts to push for an expansive anti-LGBTQ agenda. Its leadership has had a direct line to the White House in the past; during the confirmation hearings for Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, ADF President Michael Farris wrote in a now-deleted Facebook post that the White House briefed him about the FBI’s investigation into reports of sexual misconduct by Kavanaugh.
Farris wrote in a March 24 Facebook post that Vice President Mike Pence briefed 35 conservative leaders, including Farris, on a call about COVID-19 that day. Farris praised the administration in his post and suggested that Pence outlined a timeline that would get people back to work in “weeks not months.” Farris also posted about the call on ADF’s blog.
On April 10, ADF filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of a church, challenging an executive order by the mayor of Greenville, Mississippi, that banned drive-in church services in the city. Police issued $500 tickets to congregants who refused to leave voluntarily, but the mayor said that the city would not require anyone to pay the fines. The Department of Justice, which has employed several ADF allies, intervened in the lawsuit on April 14, writing a 14-page “statement of interest” in support of ADF’s client. Soon after, the mayor reversed the ban to allow drive-in services. ADF’s Kristen Waggoner appeared on Fox News @ Night with Shannon Bream to discuss the case; Bream has a cozy relationship with ADF and regularly hosts its lawyers and clients on her show, which is a part of the network’s purported “news” division.
On April 14, ADF filed a federal lawsuit against the city of Greensboro and Guilford County, North Carolina, “on behalf of four abortion protesters charged under the city’s stay-at-home order.” The protesters are part of a Christian ministry called Love Life. Police reported that the protesters, who traveled from another county to protest, refused to leave after being asked. ADF’s lawsuit contends that the stay-at-home order, which is meant to keep citizens and health care professionals safe, violated the protesters’ First Amendment rights.
ADF filed another lawsuit on April 16 on behalf of a church against the city of Chattanooga, Tennessee, and its mayor for the city’s stay-at-home order, which included a ban on drive-in church services. According to the Chattanooga Times Free Press, “the church’s argument cites an April 15 statement from Attorney General William Barr, who said governments cannot put special restrictions on religious activities if those restrictions are not also applied to nonreligious activities.” The Associated Press reported that the mayor reversed course on April 18, and on April 29, ADF voluntarily dismissed its lawsuit.
Also on April 16, ADF sued Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly on behalf of two churches and their pastors “over her executive order that bans mass religious gatherings due to the novel coronavirus pandemic.” According to The Wichita Eagle, “the federal lawsuit follows a narrow decision by the Kansas Supreme Court on Saturday that allowed Kelly’s mass gathering ban to prohibit religious services with more than 10 people.” The lawsuit admits that the churches have average attendance that is considerably higher than 10 people but cites their belief that the Bible says gathering for worship is necessary. The Associated Press reported that a federal judge ruled on April 18 that part of the order could not be enforced against the churches, writing, “Churches and religious activities appear to have been singled out among essential functions for stricter treatment.” On April 24, ADF’s Tyson Langhofer wrote an op-ed in The Kansas City Star highlighting the case and claiming that the churches “meticulously followed health and safety protocols.” Kelly and the churches reached a settlement on April 25 allowing them to operate in person if they follow safety protocols, according to the Leavenworth Times.
ADF filed another lawsuit in North Carolina targeting the city of Charlotte and Mecklenburg County on April 18 after anti-abortion protesters -- including David Benham, the LGBTQ rights opponent whose planned HGTV show was canceled because of his bigoted remarks -- were “arrested for exceeding a 10-person limit imposed to fight the spread of the coronavirus.” In addition to Benham, Love Life is a plaintiff in this case. ADF previously sent a letter to Charlotte on April 8 threatening legal action.
On April 24, ADF lawyers sent a letter to Wake County in North Carolina regarding its order that affected churches distributing communion and taking donations at drive-in services. Later that day, county officials said that “churches can still provide sacraments, collect offerings and keep their congregations informed under the county's stay-at-home order,” according to WRAL.
American Family Association
American Family Association (AFA) has used its right-wing evangelical radio network American Family Radio to spread misinformation about COVID-19, including by telling audiences to stay away from doctors’ offices and to instead buy vitamin packs. In one instance, host Bryan Fischer said there was some “good” coming from the coronavirus, remarking that “closing public schools will protect vulnerable young children from force-fed indoctrination” and “from being brainwashed into normalizing sexual deviancy, gender confusion, and Drag Queen story hours.”
On April 14, AFA urged its supporters to contact their governors to oppose bans on drive-in worship services, writing, “Send an email urging your governor to take immediate action to ensure that the peaceful gathering of American citizens to exercise their religion is not infringed upon by any government official or police.”
AFA issued a separate call on April 24 for supporters to contact their state politicians, fearmongering about religious liberty. It said: “The government can’t place more restrictive limits on attendance at religious functions than the limits it places on nonreligious entities—like a supermarket or building supply store.” It also mentioned the ordinance in Greeneville, Mississippi, that ADF challenged.
Family Research Council
Family Research Council (FRC) President Tony Perkins has been in regular contact with the Trump-Pence administration since the early days of its coronavirus response, even switching gears alongside the White House after originally calling fears about COVID-19 “irrational,” as Right Wing Watch’s Jared Holt reported. In addition to having his own conversations with the administration, Perkins has also helped connect the White House directly to his Christian network, bolstering Trump’s reelection campaign in the process. FRC is an extreme and powerful anti-LGBTQ group that is deeply connected to the Trump-Pence administration, and Perkins is the chair of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.
During an interview uploaded to the right-wing evangelical Christian Broadcasting Network’s CBN News website on March 18, Perkins said that he had been “working with the White House and working with officials to try to come up with creative ideas for churches to be able to meet.” He also said that he had sent a letter to Trump on March 11 asking him to call for a National Day of Prayer, adding, “The president immediately said yes.” (Days later, on March 14, Trump called for the day of prayer.) Perkins said he had spoken to other members of the administration the same day he appeared on CBN.
FRC organized a March 20 call with hundreds of pastors to discuss the coronavirus pandemic -- which would later become a weekly event -- in which Trump asked them to pray for his reelection. He also bemoaned the extensive coronavirus coverage on TV news for detracting from the election, which he called “one of the biggest dates in the history of religion, as far as I’m concerned.” The call also featured Pence and Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson. CBN wrote about it in an exclusive report, noting that audio of the call would be “sent out to 15,000 pastors nationwide as part of FRC’s, ‘Watchmen On The Wall’ ministry.” CBN’s report also misleadingly noted that Trump’s call “briefly dabbled into election politics,” whereas Right Wing Watch’s transcript of his remarks showed that he spoke about it significantly.
Perkins interviewed Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar about the coronavirus on the March 31 edition of FRC’s radio program Washington Watch. On the April 11 episode, he interviewed Pence and asked him to follow the Justice Department’s example and address rules that “went too far in singling out religious institutions.” Pence responded, “Rest assured that we will.”
On April 17, Trump participated in another call with Perkins and faith leaders to discuss federal guidance declaring members of the clergy “essential” workers. In a blog about it, Perkins praised the administration, saying, “It was another reminder of just how fortunate we are to have an administration that isn’t indifferent or hostile to the faith community — as others have been.” Acting Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security Chad Wolf also joined that call.
In another episode of Washington Watch, on April 17, Perkins noted that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo joined a call the week prior, on April 9, and said that members of Congress had also addressed the weekly call with pastors. He cited these connections as a purpose of his Washington Watch program, bemoaning “fake news” and saying FRC’s show brings decision-makers “directly to the people so that they can hear exactly what’s happening, unfiltered by these leftist lenses that are out there in the mainstream media.” He also bragged that FRC worked with the Trump-Pence administration and the Department of Homeland Security to get faith leaders classified as “essential” workers and had encouraged Trump to pressure governors about taking that position at the state level.
FRC has created a “Guidelines for Reopening Your Church” document that encourages people to contact the organization “if you encounter a situation in which you believe religious activities are being unfairly singled out, or there is another sort of religious freedom violation.”
ABC News reported that First Liberty “has represented churches challenging drive-in service limits in Kentucky and Mississippi” but “has discouraged other attorneys from taking virus-related cases that may set unwelcome precedents.” Similar to ADF, the group has focused on orders that specifically mention religious entities.
On April 9, First Liberty sent a letter on behalf of a church to the mayor of Louisville, Kentucky, asking him to reverse bans on churches holding drive-in services on Easter Sunday. On April 10, it sought a restraining order against the prohibition, which a judge temporarily granted the next day, allowing the church to continue to hold drive-in services. The mayor and the church reached an agreement on April 21 that would continue to allow the services.
WJTV News reported that First Liberty sent another April 9 letter to the mayor of Greeneville, Mississippi, over an order prohibiting drive-in church services. First Liberty represents a different pastor and church in Greeneville than ADF. On April 10, First Liberty President Kelly Shackelford and the pastor appeared on Fox News’ Tucker Carlson Tonight to discuss the case, and on April 15, it filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of its client in an attempt to invalidate the order. That same day, the mayor decided that drive-in church services would be permitted if attendees kept their windows up and that churches could have up to 10 people in the building for worship services streamed online or aired on TV or radio. The Associated Press reported that the mayor had faced pressure from “two freedom-of-religion lawsuits and pushback from the U.S. attorney general”; those cases were from First Liberty and ADF. First Liberty praised the Department of Justice for its statement opposing Greeneville's order. The statement was filed in the interest of ADF's client rather than First Liberty's.
Additionally, First Liberty sent a letter on April 22 on behalf of three churches in New York asking a county executive to withdraw an order that restricted drive-in church services during the coronavirus pandemic. According to WENY News, the county executive reversed course and said that “he believes parking lot church services can safely be conducted.”
Though the Heritage Foundation has not been as publicly involved in addressing state restrictions on churches and faith leaders, it has been front and center in the administration’s general response to the coronavirus pandemic and in its plans to reopen the economy. Heritage has placed its alumni throughout the Trump-Pence administration, and the group has been influential in anti-trans advocacy, including recent state pushes to ban best practice health care for trans youth.
Heritage launched the National Coronavirus Recovery Commission on April 6, led by its president, Kay Coles James. Charmaine Yoest, a former vice president of FRC who has a history of pushing misinformation about LGBTQ people and abortion, is one of the commission’s two executive directors. Right Wing Watch’s Peter Montgomery has noted that the commission “pushes policy actions that would advance the right-wing think tank’s policy agenda, including further deregulation of business and privatization of education funding.” He also added that the recommendations advocated for “reducing or removing restrictive labor policies, such as increased minimum wages.”
On April 14, Trump announced that he would consult with James “as one of America’s thought leaders with ideas for restarting the U.S. economy,” and Heritage says she joined Trump, industry leaders, and CEOs on an April 15 call.
Liberty Counsel has been highly engaged in efforts to reopen churches despite the coronavirus pandemic. The organization has encouraged them to reopen on May 3 and has legally represented churches and pastors which have violated stay-at-home orders. Liberty Counsel founder Mat Staver has questioned whether any restrictions should be allowed on churches at all during the coronavirus pandemic, and he has compared restrictions on religious gatherings during the public health crisis to actions taken during the early days of the Holocaust.
Liberty Counsel regularly smears LGBTQ people, including through right-wing evangelical media, and the group is working to overturn protections from the harmful and dangerous practice of conversion therapy across the country.
On March 30, the Rev. Rodney Howard-Browne was arrested in Florida for holding two church services “filled with hundreds of parishioners,” defying stay-at-home orders in his county despite warnings from the sheriff's office and local government. Liberty Counsel is representing Howard-Browne, who visited the White House and “prayed over Mr. Trump” earlier in March. The New York Times reported:
“The problem with this administrative order is it was not reviewed by constitutional experts or vetted by a deliberative body,” Mat Staver, Liberty Counsel’s chairman, said in a statement. "Contrary to Sheriff Chronister’s allegation that Pastor Howard-Browne was ‘reckless,’ the actions of Hillsborough County and the Hernando County sheriff are discriminatory against religion and church gatherings.”
After Howard-Browne’s arrest, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis issued a statewide stay-at-home order on April 1 that exempted churches and superseded counties’ stricter orders, meaning Howard-Browne could have held in-person services. But Howard-Browne eventually canceled Easter services in his church after losing his insurance; Staver claimed it was because he received death threats. Slate’s Ruth Graham reported that Howard-Browne has a history of right-wing provocations, including guest hosting a show on the conspiracy theory website Infowars and calling for Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg to be shot for treason.
On April 17, Liberty Counsel filed a lawsuit on behalf of a Louisville, Kentucky, church and its pastor when its churchgoers were “issued quarantine notices by Kentucky State Police troopers” after it held the “only in-person service in [the] state” on Easter Sunday. The Louisville Courier Journal reported that “at least 50 people were in the building for the April 12 event.” Liberty Counsel had previously asked for “a restraining order blocking enforcement of Gov. Andy Beshear’s order barring faith-based mass gatherings,” which was denied by a federal judge. The judge said the order did not discriminate against religion. The church held services after the order was denied, but members “were not issued notices.”
Liberty Counsel filed a lawsuit on April 24 against Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam on behalf of a church and its pastor, who was served a summons for exceeding rules prohibiting gatherings of more than 10 people. Liberty Counsel has been representing the church since it was first charged earlier in April.
Liberty Counsel has also said it gave legal advice to anti-abortion protesters in Virginia, telling a “pastor that church members could minister outdoors with appropriate distance between each person on the sidewalk.”
In addition to its cases, Liberty Counsel has spearheaded a ReOpen Church movement calling for churches to open on May 3, and it is supporting and advertising protests against stay-at-home orders across the country. An LGBTQ Nation report on the group’s campaign illustrated risks of churches reopening and highlighted cases in which faith leaders who defied orders subsequently passed away from COVID-19:
A Christian evangelist who mocked the response to the novel coronavirus pandemic has died after likely being infected while preaching on the streets of New Orleans. A Virginia minister who defied lockdown orders and vowed to keep preaching until he was arrested or died, saying he was protected by God, died less than a week later from COVID-19.
Louisiana Pastor Tony Spell has been in national headlines for weeks because of his refusal to follow his state’s ban on large gatherings. He was arrested in late March, and, still defiant, he bused parishioners in for a church service.
Now a member of his church has died of COVID-19 and his lawyer has been hospitalized due to complications from the disease.
In a document about churches reopening, Liberty Counsel wrote that it “is available to answer questions on a pro bono basis at no charge.”
Liberty Counsel’s effort mirrors the larger “ReOpen” protests happening across the country, which have been boosted by right-wing media, anti-government extremists, and powerful donors, all of which have used social media platforms like Facebook to organize and amplify the efforts.
One pro-gun Iowa family has used state-specific Facebook pages with more than 200,000 followers to help organize protests in Minnesota, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin, and several other pro-gun and anti-government extremists have helped plan or promote protests using online forums including Facebook groups. These protests have been heavily boosted by Fox News and right-wing media; a Media Matters study found that over an eight-day period, Fox devoted 91 segments to them, spending six hours covering the protests. At one point, Trump tweeted praise of the protests immediately following Fox’s coverage of them.
A New York Times op-ed noted that these protests are not grassroots efforts: “Early evidence suggests they are not organic but a brush fire being stoked by some of the same people and money that built the Tea Party.” It also noted that a protest in Michigan was organized by a group whose “chairman manages the vast financial investments of Dick and Betsy DeVos, the Education Secretary.” Powerful legal organizations and donors are reported to be providing financial and legal assistance to demonstrators and groups.
Other groups that have fought LGBTQ rights have filed briefs or lawsuits on behalf of churches against COVID-19 restrictions.
The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty filed an amicus brief on April 17 “in support of a church in New Mexico that is challenging the governor's order limiting religious gatherings to no more than five people.” The court denied the motion later that evening, concluding, “The public's interest in limiting the COVID-19 outbreak in the state, a compelling interest, outweighs the right to gather.” Becket Fund is also working to allow foster care and adoption agencies to discriminate against LGBTQ prospective parents in a case that will be heard by the Supreme Court.
The Thomas More Society filed a federal lawsuit on April 23 against the city of Holly Springs, Mississippi, and on April 24, a federal judge ruled that the society’s client could hold “drive-in services after police issued the pastor a citation for holding Easter services amid the coronavirus outbreak.” The Thomas More Society has a record of opposing LGBTQ rights and visibility through the legal system.
Pacific Justice Institute (PJI) is representing churches and pastors in California that are urging the governor “to revise the stay-at-home order to include pastoral care as an essential business.” PJI President Brad Dacus appeared with Perkins on Washington Watch to discuss restrictions on churches, and he was quoted in a FoxNews.com op-ed about the topic. PJI is an extreme anti-LGBTQ group that advocates for dangerous conversion therapy and once led a smear campaign against a transgender teen who was harassed and received death threats after her name was leaked to the public.