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Abundant Life holds one of several church services Sunday, May 17, 2020. Photo: Facebook Live screenshot.

Abundant Life among many churches open for worship Sunday while lawsuit proceeds

A Lee’s Summit church that took on what many consider unfair county reopening regulations held services Sunday. The faithful at Abundant Life Church, and hundreds of other churches across the metro, gathered together for the first time in nine weeks.

Before the county-ordered lockdown in March, nearly 6,000 had attended their Lee’s Summit and Blue Springs locations weekly. Since that time, Abundant Life – like many other faith communities – has continued to stream their Sunday services online.

Lead pastor Phil Hopper told the Metro Voice on Sunday that a combined total of about 1,000 people attended three services at their Lee’s Summit campus and about 300 attended the three services at their new Blue Springs location.

Hopper did not address the lawsuit against Jackson County (pdf) during his sermon, instead preaching a message of spiritual awakening. In a video on Facebook last Thursday, Hopper said they would limit attendance at their Lee’s Summit campus to about 400 per service and 120 in their Blue Springs location. He made the announcement after Jackson County officially eased restrictions on places of worship.

The new county rule allows faith-based buildings with over 10,000 square feet, like Abundant Life, to accommodate up to 10 percent of building capacity. Places of worship under 10,000 square feet are permitted to assemble up to 25 percent of permitted building occupancy, according to fire codes.

The resumption of Sunday services at the church and places of worship throughout Jackson County were in doubt until May 12. That night, Jackson County announced on Twitter that it was changing its reopening plan for churches and other places of worship. The county’s revised reopening plan changed its previous regulation for places of worship that was released on May 6. That plan had limited places of worship to allow no more than 10 congregants in their buildings.

County Threatens One Church with Fines and Imprisonment

Before May 6, at least one church in Jackson County had received cease-and-desist letters from the director of the county health department. Those letters contained the threat of possible fines, jail time, imprisonment and suspension of its business license. That church had only been holding drive-in services in their parking lot. Congregants remained in their vehicles and the pastor preached from a small platform by the parking area.

As reported in the Metro Voice on May 7, Abundant Life’s attorney, Jon Whitehead, filed a civil lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Missouri in Kansas City that day. The lawsuit challenges Jackson County’s limitations on churches and places of worship, asserting they are “unlawful,” “discriminatory” and “unconstitutional” “government overreach.”

Last week, Whitehead filed a Motion for a Temporary Restraining Order (TRO) to protect Abundant Life and other churches and places of worship. Many places of worship in Jackson County were planning to resume services over last weekend. That emergency hearing was scheduled for May 14.

TRO Withdrawn; ‘Underlying Suit Will Remain in Place’

When Jackson County made its changes for places of worship official on May 14, Whitehead withdrew the TRO that same day. When reached for comment yesterday, Whitehead told the Metro Voice that even though the TRO was withdrawn, the lawsuit is still in place.

“The underlying suit will remain in place. The new guidance still does not meet the constitutional standard,” Whitehead said.

The county’s updated recovery plan calls for phase one to last a minimum of 14 days from the plan’s start date on May 11. The county has not issued definitive timelines for phases two through four, stating they will be contingent on “observable progress.”

Those criteria include if “the number of new cases has declined for at least 14 days, rapid diagnostic testing capacity, health-care system capacity to care for all patients and enough personal protective equipment (PPE) and sufficient public health capacity to conduct contract tracing for all new cases and their close contacts.” County guidelines state that each phase will last a minimum of 14 days, with transition to progressive phases contingent on the above criteria.

Some County Legislators and Mayors Are Frustrated

Given the arbitrary determinations by the county that exceed federal and state limitations, reaching the “back to normal” phase four could be much longer than six weeks. Based on its current plan, it might not be until year end or possibly well into next year.

In the wake of the SARS-Co-V2 outbreak, some mayors in eastern Jackson County and county legislators have expressed frustration with the lack of input county officials have accepted from them. County policymaking on this appears to have been largely driven by unelected county health department officials advising the county executive.

County Requires Vaccine or Therapeutic for “Return to Normal”

The recovery plan states, “Phase IV offers “a return to normal,” but includes a controversial catch. It states phase four “will require a vaccine or advanced therapeutic to be readily available to the general public.” Federal officials have repeatedly stated that “Operation Warp Speed,” the project to develop a vaccine for the SARS-Co-V2 virus, could have such a vaccine available by year-end.

Multiple news outlets have reported that in a best-case scenario, 100 million doses of the vaccine could be available by year-end and 300 million by next summer. The Associated Press reported that the goal is to have 300,000 doses available by year-end.

Uncertainty of when a vaccine will be “readily available,” coupled with Jackson County’s current requirement of a vaccine for going “back to normal,” makes Abundant Life’s lawsuit likely to stay in place and possibly go to trial. If the case does go to trial, a possible jury verdict in favor of Abundant Life could help protect places of worship in Jackson County and statewide. It could also become a citation in case law nationally.

‘Unconstitutional to Discriminate Against Religious Activity’

Whitehead, Hopper and the language of the lawsuit make clear that Abundant Life is challenging Jackson County for “government overreach.” The suit claims that the constitutions of both the United States and Missouri, as well as federal laws, prohibit Jackson County from placing “unlawful” and “unconstitutional” restrictions on places of worship.

In his last public statement to his congregation about the lawsuit on Facebook last Thursday, Hopper said. “We filed this lawsuit to force our county government to govern lawfully.” He also said many have asked how much the lawsuit has cost Abundant Life. Hopper said, “This has not cost us anything, zero” he said.

In rebutting assertions online that “this is all about money,” Hopper responded, “Abundant Life is very healthy financially,” noting that giving to the church is “about 95 percent online.” He highlighted that in the last two months during the shut-down, their food pantry has served 2,500 families. So it’s not about giving or finances. It’s religious freedom.

“It is unconstitutional to discriminate against religious activity. This is a constitutional issue, pure and simple,” Hopper said.

–Dwight Widaman I Metro Voice

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