Acknowledging they would likely lose in court, Jackson County and its health department will pay the legal fees of an eastern Jackson County mega church that challenged the county’s COVID-19 restrictions in federal court.
The $146,750 payment to Abundant Life Baptist Church and attorney Jonathan R. Whitehead settles the case filed in May 2020. In exchange for the church dropping its lawsuit, the county agreed that any future health restrictions would be no more onerous on churches than secular gatherings.
Responsibility for paying the settlement is being shared equally by county government and University Health, formerly known as Truman Medical Centers, which runs the county health department.
Abundant Life, which holds services in Blue Springs and Lee’s Summit, had alleged that the county’s COVID-19 recovery plan violated both the U.S. and Missouri constitutions by discriminating against religion.
Thousands attend services each week at Abundant Life. But under the county’s initial easing of COVID-19 restrictions, church services were grouped with other large gatherings and social events and limited to no more than 10 people.
Non-essential stores, restaurants and bars, meanwhile, did not have a numerical attendance limit. They were allowed to reopen as long as they followed the social distancing recommendations put out by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The church contended that the county’s rules violated its rights to the free exercise of religion, free speech and the right of people to peaceably assemble.
The county no longer restricts gatherings, and federal court decisions handed down over the past year in similar cases made it unlikely Jackson County would win in court.
In a 5-4 decision last April, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that California’s regulation limiting the size of Bible studies and prayer meetings was an unconstitutional restriction on religious rights. The Jackson County settlement agreement cited three other cases that produced similar results.
“We were going to lose,” Dan Tarwater said in a telephone interview after he and five other members of the county legislature voted Monday to approve the settlement. Legislators Ron Finley and Crystal Williams opposed the settlement.
“I kind of wanted to wait and see if we could win,” said Tarwater, who chairs the legislature this year. But the county’s lawyers said it was futile to continue, he said.
And costs were mounting. While the county was using in-house counsel, the health department is represented by a private law firm.
Whitehead, the lawyer representing Abundant Life Baptist Church, did not immediately return a call requesting comment.