One of the largest churches in Missouri is taking legal action against Jackson County, Mo., because of its new restrictions on reopening churches. Pastor Phil Hopper, lead pastor of Abundant Life Church, announced the decision on the church’s Facebook page May 7 and spoke exclusively with Metro Voice.
Exclusive to MetroVoiceNews.com
“What they’ve said is that churches, regardless of the size, can only gather with 10 people or fewer,” he said. “Because that is discriminatory, our church is filing a lawsuit today, appealing to the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. We’re doing everything we can to go through the legal channels that we’ve been given. We do have something called the U.S. Constitution, and the First Amendment guarantees the right to worship. And so we are appealing what amounts to a discriminatory action against churches in our area, simply asking them to follow the US Constitution and give us as a church the same rights they’ve given businesses to reopen.”
The Lee’s Summit church, which has nearly 6,000 members, plans to reopen on Sunday, May 17. It will limit services to 10 percent capacity and wait for a response from Jackson County. “We don’t want to sue our own government if we don’t have to,” Hopper said, adding that Peter taught in Acts 5:29 that there potentially is a time for civil disobedience. We’re not going to do that; we’re going to follow the legal channels and we’re going to seek to work with them.”
Hopper hopes to find an agreeable solution with the county outside the legal system.
“I said from the beginning, we have a responsibility as Christians to follow our governing authorities,” he said. ”It’s very clear in scripture as a biblical mandate as the church. The Apostle Peter said in I Peter 2:13 that we ought to obey every ordinance of man for the Lord’s sake.”
READ: Kansas City policy requiring churches to keep lists is criticized
Hopper noted that the county ruling is in violation of First Amendment protection that forbids government from prohibiting the free exercise of religion.
“We do not want to be defiant or oppositional to human government,” he said. “As a matter of fact, Romans 13 tells us that human government is one of the institutions of God for the good order of society. So we as the church have a responsibility to work with them and not against them. But then, there’s another principle that same Peter gave us in Acts 5:29 when he said to obey God rather than men.
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“As long as our government does not give us an unbiblical or sinful mandate, we are to obey them. But at whatever point they give us an unbiblical or sinful mandate, we are to disobey them and obey God.”
Video: Hopper speaks to his church via Facebook
The church is represented by Jon Whitehead who has successfully argued religious liberty cases before the Supreme Court of the United States. He was one of the attorneys for Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia in its successful 2017 case and Trinity Lutheran v. Comer; along with Alliance Defending Freedom, and his father, Mike Whitehead.
Whitehead told Metro Voice that the lawsuit has been filed in the U.S. District Court for Western Missouri in Kansas City (pdf). Whitehead echoed Hopper’s assertion that the position of the county is in violation of First Amendment protection that forbids government from prohibiting the free exercise of religion.
The suit joins a tidal wave of legal action across the nation as businesses, churches and other organizations respond to what many see as draconian and unconstitutional actions that restrict the free assembly of individuals and interfere with legal commerce and even free speech.
See our exclusive interview with Phil Hopper below
“Metro Voice” broke the story on May 4 that Kansas City Mayor Quinton Lucas would include churches in 10/10/10 COVID-19 reopening plans limiting attendance to just 10 people (including staff) or 10 percent of their occupancy permit per fire code. It also required churches to create a list of all individuals who enter the building, recording their names and contact information. Churches and businesses were required to hold the list for 30 days unless an individual tested positive for COVID-19. At that point, the order requires the church to hand over the information to county officials. If churches do comply, they could be fined and shut down, and it was implied that pastors could face arrest.
After the “Metro Voice” story received national attention, the Kansas City order was criticized by many people who questioned a lack of recordkeeping for numerous other businesses, including grocery stores and hardware and home improvement stores, which typically see many times more people than the average church experiences in during Sunday attendance.
Lucas eventually walked back part of the 10/10/10 Rule after the “Metro Voice” story was picked up nationally, dropping mandatory list requirements and making it voluntary. However, the action isn’t enough for thousands of businesses, and now churches that say the mayor of a city or county leaders don’t have the constitutional authority to abridge rights guaranteed under the Constitution.
Jeff Grisamore, a former Missouri state legislator and Abundant Life member, said the 10/10/10 Rule is an unconstitutional government overreach that “violates the First Amendment rights of faith communities, guaranteeing freedom of religion and protecting those religious bodies from inordinate control by governmental entities.”
Grisamore is also a former pastor who currently consults with non-profits and businesses. He told “Metro Voice” that the Kansas City and Jackson County rules are “unreasonably restrictive and damaging to businesses, especially the rule limiting customer access to 10 percent of occupancy.”
Grisamore has been encouraging leaders in the faith and business communities to push back and challenge the occupancy restrictions set to take effect on May 11 in Jackson County and May 15 in Kansas City.
Jackson County’s plan is more restrictive than Kansas City’s order in that businesses with less than 10,000 square feet are limited to 25 percent of occupancy. Businesses with more than 10,000 square feet are limited to 10 percent of occupancy. The Jackson County plan is more restrictive in that it limits churches to 10 people regardless of building size.
Businesses being allowed to reopen after May 10 include retail, personal services such as nail and hair salons, and restaurants and bars. Entertainment venues, gyms, fitness centers and outdoor playgrounds and sports courts are to remain closed according to the Jackson County order.
After Jackson County officials announcement on May 7 that religious gatherings would continue to be limited to 10 persons inside places of worship during phase one of the reopening, other faith communities in Kansas City and Jackson County have indicated they will follow Abundant Life’s lead and also file legal action against the city and county if they do not amend their orders unreasonably restricting faith communities.
Whitehead is joined by Constitutionalists in believing that local governments must also abide by the Bill of Rights, not just Congress, when passing laws.
–Dwight Widaman | Metro Voice
In an exclusive interview with the Metro Voice by phone after his video message on May 7 Pastor Pastor Hopper shared additional insight into his actions.
MV: Were you surprised the county position released on May 7 was more restrictive than the city of Kansas City announced last week?
Hopper: “I was stunned, like most others, that Jackson County wouldn’t coordinate better with Kansas City, Missouri, since most of the city resides entirely in Jackson County. I was equally shocked by the fact that anyone with an understanding of American history and the US Constitution could have thought that such discriminatory actions would go unchecked or unchallenged.”
MV: How would you respond to those who may question if your position now contradicts what you said in March?
Hopper: “As I explained in my video, there are two principles in Scripture that that the New Testament teaches. These are not competing principles, rather completing principles. Peter said in I Peter 2:13, we ought to obey every ordinance of man for the Lord’s sake. He also says in Acts 5:29 we ought to obey God rather than men. These aren’t competing, but rather completing. The principle is we should obey the ordinance of man as long as that ordinance does not violate our conscience before God. If it’s not sinful or unbiblical, we should follow every ordinance of man. But, at such point we are caused to violate our conscious before God, we are to obey God and not men. And we have been given something unique in all of church history that we should cherish and that is a constitutional guarantee of freedom of religion. As the Apostle Paul, unique among the Apostles, was a Roman citizen, and even at one point applied his rights as a Roman citizen, there is a time as American Christians that we should appeal to our rights as Americans when they are being discriminated against as people of faith. And this goes far beyond the Christian faith, anyone of any faith — whether you’re Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Hindu — should recognize when discrimination by our government leaders is taking place and considering the nature of religious liberty and how unique it is, it is something worth standing up for.”
MV: How many on average attended Abundant Life on Sundays before you suspended onsite services in March? How many are on your paid staff?
Hopper: Over 6000 between our Lee’s Summit and Blue Springs campuses. We have about 70 paid staff full and part-time.
MV: What are your closing thoughts?
Hopper: We would like to work with our government. We don’t want to be oppositional or defiant. We have bent over backwards to follow every mandate given to us while we have selflessly and sacrificially served our city during this entire time. We have a food pantry that has given away thousands and thousands of pounds of groceries to thousands of families in Jackson County. We have people that have taken time and expense to sew thousands of masks for medical and front-line workers in the St. Luke’s Health System. So, our church has showed a desire to not only love our city but work with our local governments and we don’t expect anything less than they would want to work with us.
That’s what we are asking for.