Gov. Tim Walz and Attorney General Keith Ellison have agreed to settle a lawsuit brought against them by religious leaders who believe their First Amendment rights were violated by the governor’s COVID-19 restrictions.
The Upper Midwest Law Center (UMLC) sued state leaders in May 2020 on behalf of Northland Baptist Church, Pastor John Bruski, Living Word Christian Center, and several small businesses.
The lawsuit argued that Gov. Walz “imposed irrational and discriminatory restrictions on Christian assembly” in his COVID-19 executive orders.
Attorney General Ellison moved to dismiss the claims, but that motion was partially rejected March 30 by U.S. District Court Judge Wilhelmina Wright, who upheld the religious plaintiffs’ free exercise and freedom of assembly claims and dismissed the business plaintiffs’ claims.
This meant the case would have gone to discovery and trial, with the state’s COVID-19 orders “subject to the strictest scrutiny by the court,” according to UMLC.
“The administration knew they could not prevail in that trial, while UMLC looked forward to winning the lawsuit. This settlement was the result,” the nonprofit said.
Under the terms of the settlement, Gov. Walz has agreed to relinquish any authority to treat houses of worship in Minnesota worse than grocery and retail outlets or sports and entertainment venues. In any future executive order, houses of worship must receive equal or better treatment than “the least restricted secular business regulated by the order.”
The settlement also preserves the right of appeal for the business plaintiffs in the case, who believe the state’s discrimination against them in favor of big businesses was unconstitutional and an illegal “taking” of their businesses. The UMLC said it thinks the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals will reinstate those claims.
“One very noteworthy feature of this settlement is that it followed the first decision by any court to reject Gov. Walz and Attorney General Ellison’s defense of their Orders. No other Minnesota plaintiff has been successful in defeating the attorney general’s motions to dismiss on these claims, even in part,” UMLC President Doug Seaton said in a statement.
“This decision and now the settlement will protect Minnesotans of faith and, we hope, in the end, Minnesota business owners as well, from the oppressive government action represented by the discriminatory and irrational elements of the Emergency Orders,” he added.
Pastor Bruski of Northland Baptist Church called the settlement “a vindication of the constitutional rights of all churches and other houses of worship.”
“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,” he said.
The settlement was reached a day before Gov. Walz announced a “three-step timeline” for lifting “nearly all” of his COVID-19 restrictions, including the mask mandate.
“All Minnesotans should be encouraged that their religious freedoms are protected by the U.S. Constitution and that there is no ‘pandemic exception’ to the First Amendment allowing our state officials to prevent them from assembling and worshipping free of discriminatory and irrational restrictions,” added James Dickey, UMLC senior trial counsel. “Following appeal, we believe that UMLC ‘s business clients will also be free of these government abuses.”