Attorney general: Indianapolis’ limit on religious services is unconstitutional

Attorney General Curtis Hill on Thursday said Indianapolis’ order limiting church gatherings to no more than 25 people amounts to “unconstitutional and unlawful religious discrimination.”

Click to read the letter.

Hill on Thursday sent a letter to Mayor Joe Hogsett and Marion County Public Health Department director Dr. Virginia Caine telling them their recent restriction on worship services is unconstitutional because the same measure is not imposed on essential or non-essential businesses.

Hill did not take or explicitly threaten legal action against the city, but said in the letter his office had upped its review of state and local regulations imposed during the pandemic.

On Wednesday, Hogsett and Caine signed a new public order that allows churches to meet in person, so long as 25 or fewer people attend. Meanwhile, the order allows retail businesses to open at 50% capacity, and restaurants will be allowed to open next Friday for outdoor dining at 50% capacity.

Hill said places of worship are considered essential businesses, and churches, synagogues and other places of worship must be treated the same as non-religious entities.

“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,” Attorney General Hill wrote to Hogsett and Caine.

Taylor Schaffer, deputy chief of staff for Hogsett, said the city does not believe the public health order disciminates against religious exercise.

“Instead, its restrictions on gathering size is a rule of general applicability regulating any public gatherings,” she said. “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.”

The three-page letter from Hill said it is inappropriate and unlawful to impose special burdens on churches and other religious gatherings. He said the Indianapolis order is problematic for two reasons: It allows essential businesses to open, but places of worship—which he also said are essential—are explicitly prohibited from having more than 25 people. And it restricts churches while non-essential businesses are allowed to operate at 50% capacity.

The First Amendment  prohibits the government from singling out people for disfavored treatment because they are religious. Also, Indiana law prohibits the government from limiting the free exercise of religion by anything other than the least-restrictive means necessary to achieve the government’s compelling interest.

“Certainly, the interest of containing or limiting the spread of COVID-19 is a compelling interest,” Hill wrote. “However, it is difficult to imagine that social distancing in a shopping mall at 50% capacity that might have hundreds of people is more effective against spreading the virus than a church with fewer people but also practicing social distancing.”

Indianapolis’ plans for reopening differs from the state’s in that Gov. Eric Holcomb’s plan did not put a limit on the number of people who can attend a church service. Places of worship outside of Marion County were allowed to open Sunday without limits.

The Indianapolis limit on 25 people applies to all social gatherings.

“Absent scientific evidence that COVID-19 spreads more quickly in religious entities and at religious gatherings than other public interactions, Order 9 amounts to unconstitutional and unlawful religious discrimination,” Hill wrote.

Schaffer said it’s the city’s hope that the acting attorney general and his staff will engage in a dialgoue with the Marion County Public Health Department and reconsider their position.

The Indiana Supreme Court on Monday ruled to suspend Hill’s law license for 30 days, and he named his chief deputy to take over his office during that time.

Please enable JavaScript to view this content.

Story Continues Below

Editor's note: You can comment on IBJ stories by signing in to your IBJ account. If you have not registered, please sign up for a free account now. Please note our updated comment policy that will govern how comments are moderated.

12 thoughts on “Attorney general: Indianapolis’ limit on religious services is unconstitutional

  1. Let’s not make this a religious discrimination issue. We’re in a pandemic ladies and gentlemen!! Quite frankly, our church has been growing and doing very well meeting online and lots of our church-going friends are in no rush to be in a big crowd at church. Our pastor shares the same view. Our worship is not dependent upon meeting in large groups or in a building. Interesting the AG who has a tarnished record, is making this matter an issue.

    1. Then continue to have your services online. No one is saying you have to start attending in person. He just made a clarification that this is considered essential.

    2. Phillip, I couldn’t agree more with your point of view and am pleased that growth is increasing. Quite frankly I am ready to get back to normalcy in worship. I miss the relationships, the camaraderie and emotion of personal interaction. Weather the AG has a tarnished record is inconsequential to this discussion. Just because we open up does not mean we have to show up. We have a God given right to assemble and worship we should be very careful to not let them slip away even incrementally.

  2. Why is Hill even still giving legal opinions? It may be a few more days before he is license is officially suspended, but the state Supreme Court made it clear he was to only use these next few days to set up a transition.

    It might be essential for Hill to go to church so he has someplace to confess his sins, but I think most people would agree it is not essential to risk your life or your health to attend church.

    This is just more political spin from a failing politician.

  3. Thank you Atty Gen. Hill for pointing out the candy coated Socialist Marxism discriminating against the church and demonstrating obvious bias.

    Those of previous comments need to check their comments with Christ’s words in the Bible. You know all those scriptures about false testimony against your brother!

    Really rich the same tyrant that chimed in with others with no conclusive proof to maliciously tarnish Hill’s reputation are the same discriminating on the church. (Holcomb)

    Just be the good little boys cowering in place of no faith letting the church be tested and further trampled by admitted flawed data and science by an obvious evolving Socialist Marxist Communist tyrannical government.

    When that same government sees you will not take a stand, history tells us in other countries that fell to Communism that they eventually will take the property and land as well.

    We see blatant censorship of Christian and Conservative content on the internet now.

    How long do you thing those same tyrants are going to let the church to exist online with now broader outreach beyond their walls?

    You ever thought this framing of Atty Gen Hill might have a lot to do with as he’s done before and doing now speaking up for the church’s liberties?

    The Democrats know getting Hill out of the way is the only chance to win his office.

    RINO Holcomb is their trusted comrade.

  4. You mean Curtis Hill. He’s not the Attorney General at this time, and has been suspended from practicing law. He can write all the letters he wants … blah, blah, blah.

    1. Monday May 18th at 12:00 PM, until then he is the Attorney General of the State of Indiana. You don’t have to like it but those are the facts.

{{ articles_remaining }}
Free {{ article_text }} Remaining
{{ articles_remaining }}
Free {{ article_text }} Remaining Article limit resets in {{ count_down }} days.