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Judge dismisses church’s lawsuit against St. Louis County, but it could be refiled

Judge dismisses church’s lawsuit against St. Louis County, but it could be refiled

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ST. LOUIS COUNTY — A federal judge dismissed as moot on Tuesday a lawsuit that claimed that the county’s restrictions on church attendance during the pandemic violated the U.S. Constitution.

The suit, filed on May 20 in U.S. District Court in St. Louis by the Church of the Word, a nondenominational Christian church in an unincorporated area of the county southwest of Fenton, asked a judge to prohibit enforcement of the orders. The county restrictions were enacted weeks ago to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

The suit claimed county health regulations treat religious gatherings “less favorably” than secular gatherings and unconstitutionally burden the church's right of assembly and religious freedom. It named County Executive Sam Page and acting co-health director Emily Doucette as defendants.

But U.S. District Judge Sarah E. Pitlyk’s ruling pointed out the church filed its lawsuit seeking relief from the county’s April 20 stay-at-home order two days after that order had been superseded by new rules, which took effect on May 18, allowing a partial reopening of the county.

In the county’s updated guidelines, religious services could be held with social distancing practices and a limit of 25% of the capacity allowed under a church’s fire code.

Pitlyk ruled on Sunday that the church never showed how its First Amendment rights were threatened by the obsolete order. 

“The Court is therefore at a loss as to how enjoining the Order might redress any such injury,” she wrote. But she gave the church until Wednesday to file an amended petition.

The church then asked that she dismiss the case without prejudice, meaning it could be amended be refiled. The judge agreed on Tuesday.

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