Inslee Allows ‘Low-Risk’ Construction to Resume

Gov. Jay Inslee delivers remarks on the construction industry in late April. 

A Kennewick church is challenging Gov. Jay Inslee's "unequal treatment" during the reopening process from the coronavirus pandemic.

Calvary Chapel Tri-Cities and Calvary Mt. Si of North Bend filed a lawsuit Friday in Benton County Superior Court.

The two churches are represented by the Pacific Justice Institute.

A news release says the churches decided to take legal action "after being given no assurance that the governor's office would be allowing churches up to 50 percent capacity when their counties enter Phase 3."

Benton County currently is in Phase 1 but is applying to move up a phase.

King County, where Calvary Mt. Si is located, also is in Phase 1 but is in a modified version.

Inslee announced May 27 that as part of his "Safe Start" plan, religious and faith-based organizations in Phase 1 counties may have up to 100 people for outdoor services.

In Phase 2, they can host up to 25 percent of their capacity or 50 people -- whichever is less -- for indoor services.

That covers everything from worship services and religious study classes to religious holiday celebrations, weddings and funerals.

The plan does not go beyond the first two phases.

Calvary Chapel Tri-Cities at 10611 W. Clearwater Ave. has been offering a "COVID-19 service schedule" since mid-May with two, in-person worship services in its amphitheater on Sunday morning, one Sunday evening and a fourth on Wednesday evening.

Parishioners also can view services live on its YouTube and Facebook sites.

A letter on the church's website says while they are "concerned about those most vulnerable to this virus," they understand that most members are adults and are able to make their own decisions about health issues.

The church encourages people over 65 and anyone with a fever or other symptom to watch from home.

"While we believe the ongoing ban of church services to be unbiblical and unconstitutional, we do want to be sensitive to the concerns of the health department and the culture at large," the letter states.

Members attending in-person services are asked to wear a mask or bandanna and to follow social distancing guidelines with other families, including when entering and exiting the venue.

Seven Washington counties soon will be entering Phase 3.

The Pacific Justice Institute says it waited to sue Inslee, but his failure to look beyond Phase 2 and address church attendance expansion is a major oversight.

"Such oversight demonstrates a discrepancy in the governor's treatment of churches and similarly situated secular activities," the news release said.

Jorge Ramos, a Seattle attorney with the Pacific Justice Institute, has been in contact with a representative in Inslee's office about the reopening plan.

"Without equal treatment with theaters in Phase 3, the churches are being treated unconstitutionally," Ramos said. "This suit was brought to provide churches across the state equal protection under the laws."

Under Inslee's phased approach, theaters can be up to 50 percent of capacity in Phase 3.

"Gov. Inslee has kept his plans for reopening churches close to his vest, but with the country opening up, those tactics must stop," Brad Dacus, Institute president, said in the news release.

"We brought this suit to ensure the pews are as full as, if not fuller than, the movie theaters when Phase 3 begins in Washington state."