(The Center Square) – Indiana Attorney General Curtis Hill said Gov. Eric Holcomb cannot treat religious activities and organizations different than other essential businesses when it comes to restrictions involving the COVID-19 pandemic.
Hill issued an advisory opinion in response to a request from State Rep. Curt Nisley, R-Warsaw, who asked whether Holcomb could issue restrictions using emergency executive authority.
“During these challenging times, more people are turning to their religious communities for support and stay connected to one another,” Nisley said. “Placing restrictions only on church gatherings can isolate members and clearly violates their freedom of religion. I am grateful for Attorney General Curtis Hill’s opinion back the First Amendment rights of all worshiping Hoosiers to assemble.”
In response to the pandemic in the spring, Holcomb issued guidance that said while church buildings and other physical locations for worship should be closed, church services could continue with fewer than 10 people. He also offered parameters for drive-in services and said he preferred no communion.
Hill’s opinion said similar guidance was not issued for other essential businesses, writing it “did not even attempt neutral treatment of religion compared with other ‘essential business and activities.’”
Holcomb removed the restrictions on faith institutions in May.
“Because it subjected religious activities and institutions to additional restrictions than other essential activities and businesses without any apparent justification, the Governor’s Guidance was unlawful as religious discrimination under the First Amendment,” Hill wrote.
On Wednesday, Holcomb said he would extend a statewide mask order for another month but would not continue tighter restrictions on businesses and crowd sizes despite Indiana’s significant increases in hospitalizations and COVID-19 positives.
The state health department showed the state’s rolling number of confirmed COVID-19 infections grew 85% from three weeks earlier.
Also, State Health Commissioner Kristina Box tested positive for COVID-19 after spending time with her grandson and daughter, who also tested positive. Box will spend 14 days in quarantine.
Holcomb tested negative. Dr. Lindsay Weaver, chief medical officer for the Indiana State Health Department, along with Box, each advised Holcomb he can resume a normal schedule with vigilance about masking and social distancing.
“The coronavirus does not discriminate, and this further highlights the importance of wearing masks and social distancing,” Holcomb said.