Republican gubernatorial candidate sues to lift restrictions on religious activities


SEATTLE – Joshua Freed, a Republican candidate for governor, filed a lawsuit Wednesday over restrictions placed on religious gatherings under Washington’s “Stay Home, Stay Healthy" order.

The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Seattle, seeks an emergency injunction to lift a portion of Governor Jay Inslee’s March 23 order that bans “all public and private gatherings and multi-person activities for social, spiritual and recreational purposes, regardless of the number of people involved, except as specifically identified herein.”

Freed said restricting religious gatherings violates the Constitution.

“You can’t publicly, privately, indoors, outdoors go have a time of prayer with somebody who might share your same faith,” Freed told Q13 News. “What I’ve challenged is that our First Amendment rights are being stolen and violated during this period of time under Jay Inslee’s ‘Stay Home’ order.”

The lawsuit claims Freed, a practicing Christian, has standing to challenge the ban on religious activities in part because he and his wife have hosted bible studies at their home for the past two-and-a-half years.

“The number of attendees is small, and Mr. Freed’s home allows the services to be held outdoors when weather permits,” according to the filing.

Inslee’s “Stay Home, Stay Healthy” order, a response to the Coronavirus pandemic, is currently set to expire May 4, although the governor said in an address to the public Tuesday evening that many of the order’s restrictions would not be lifted at that time.

Modeling from the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington has shown that lifting the social distancing mandates currently in place before May 4 will result in a rise in the number of deaths. As such, a formal extension of the order is expected.

Tara Lee, Inslee’s communications director, said in an email that religious counseling is deemed an essential activity and can continue, but it's unclear when restrictions might be lifted on other religious activities.

"This came up around Easter and we know that it was extremely difficult for people," Lee said. "We recognize the burden that this places on everyone from participants in AA meetings to people meeting up for support in cafes or restaurants. To be clear, there is a huge list of things that people would like to be lifted and some of them are very, very important, like in-person support for people going through addiction and recovery. The reason for doing all of this, as the governor has said, is to slow the spread of this disease and save lives. This is the reason and we know it is extremely disruptive to people’s lives."

Lee said the governor's office would be reviewing Freed's lawsuit.

U.S. Attorney General William Barr said in an interview Tuesday that the Justice Department could side with citizens who sue governors over undue restrictions.

“Our federal constitutional rights don’t go away in an emergency,” Barr said in an appearance on Hugh Hewitt’s radio program. “And in a circumstance like this, they put on the government the burden to make sure that whatever burdens it’s putting on our constitutional liberties are strictly necessary to deal with the problem. They have to be targeted. They have to use less intrusive means if they are equally effective in dealing with the problem. And that’s the situation we’re in today. We’re moving into a period where we have to do a better job of targeting the measures we’re deploying to deal with this virus.”

It is unclear whether the Justice Department would get involved in Freed’s lawsuit. An email seeking comment was not immediately returned.

Freed, who joined more than 2,000 people who protested the governor’s “Stay Home, Stay Healthy” mandate in Olympia on Sunday, said he is hopeful the governor will amend his order, rather than force the lawsuit to move forward.

“My true hope is that Jay Inslee just does that right thing and we don’t have to wait for the courts to make a decision," he said.