In a rare move, a federal judge allowed claims brought against Gov. Tim Walz by two religious organizations to move forward late last month.
Walz and Attorney General Keith Ellison, both named as defendants in the lawsuit, frequently boast about winning every case brought against the governor’s COVID-19 restrictions, which limited the number of people who could attend religious services.
“One very noteworthy feature of this decision is that it is the first time that any court has rejected Gov. Walz and Attorney General Ellison’s attempt to avoid the heightened scrutiny required by the Constitution,” Upper Midwest Law Center President Doug Seaton explained.
Seaton’s legal nonprofit filed a lawsuit on behalf of Northland Baptist Church, Pastor John Bruski, Living Word Christian Center, and several small businesses in May of last year. According to Seaton, the lawsuit argues that Walz “imposed irrational and discriminatory restrictions on Christian assembly” in his COVID-19 executive orders.
The complaint calls for permanently prohibiting the governor from interfering in religious exercise. Attorney General Ellison moved to dismiss the claims, but that motion was partially denied March 30 by U.S. District Court Judge Wilhelmina Wright.
“No other Minnesota plaintiff has been successful in defeating the Attorney General’s motions to dismiss on these claims, even in part. This decision will help protect Minnesotans of faith and, we are confident, as the case progresses, Minnesota business owners as well, from the oppressive government action represented by the discriminatory and irrational elements of the Emergency Orders,” Seaton continued.
Specifically, Wright held that the religious plaintiffs’ claims for violations of their free exercise rights under the First Amendment are valid and can move forward. However, she granted the state’s motion to dismiss the equal protection and property takings claims brought by businesses in the lawsuit, which the Upper Midwest Law Center plans to appeal in the future.
“I am relieved that, finally, the federal court has validated our claims and denied the efforts of the Governor and Attorney General to prevent us from proving that these Emergency Orders are unconstitutional infringements on our rights to assemble and worship. We plan to do just that,” said Bruski, pastor of Northland Baptist Church.
Robin Kelleher, a member of the Upper Midwest Law Center’s board, said in a Star Tribune letter that the ruling marks a “clear defeat for Ellison’s claims that there is a pandemic exception to the Constitution under the Jacobson v. Massachusetts case from 1905.”
“This means that the churches’ claim that these restrictions are unconstitutional can continue like any other lawsuit,” she said.