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Case Name High Plains Harvest Church v. Polis FA-CO-0009
Docket / Court 1:20-cv-01480 ( D. Colo. )
State/Territory Colorado
Case Type(s) Speech and Religious Freedom
Special Collection COVID-19 (novel coronavirus)
Case Summary
COVID-19 Summary: This is a suit brought by a church against the State of Colorado's enforcement of stay-at-home orders, including the policy prohibiting in-person religious activities. Following a Supreme Court decision denying a similar application for injunctive relief, plaintiffs withdrew their ... read more >
COVID-19 Summary: This is a suit brought by a church against the State of Colorado's enforcement of stay-at-home orders, including the policy prohibiting in-person religious activities. Following a Supreme Court decision denying a similar application for injunctive relief, plaintiffs withdrew their request for injunctive relief. They later filed an amended complaint and a renewed motion for TRO and preliminary injunction, which was denied on June 16.


The "safer at home" executive orders issued by Colorado Governor Jared Polis in response to the outbreak of COVID-19 prohibited religious gatherings of over 10 people. High Plains Harvest Church, a small, rural church, and one of its pastors alleged that the orders violated their First and Fourteenth Amendment rights. Represented by private counsel, plaintiffs sued Governor Polis and the Executive Director of the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment in the U.S. District Court for the District of Colorado under 42 U.S.C.§ 1983 on May 25, 2020. The plaintiffs, who simultaneously filed a motion for temporary restraining order (TRO), sought declaratory and injunctive relief, as well as attorneys' costs and fees. The case was assigned to Judge Raymond P. Moore and Magistrate Judge Michael E. Hegarty.

The plaintiffs alleged that the executive orders were unconstitutional both facially and as-applied, violating their freedom of religion, freedom of speech, and equal protection rights. The plaintiffs asserted that the orders burdened their sincerely held religious beliefs by "permit[ing] other similarly situated businesses or non-religious entities to continue while prohibiting faith-based gatherings." Moreover, the plaintiffs claimed that the orders violated their "freedom of speech by prohibiting them from engaging in religious speech through their church services." Finally, plaintiffs contended that the orders, which permitted "critical businesses" such as grocery, gun, and hardware stores to remain open, violated their equal protection rights by "impermissibly discriminat[ing[ between certain non-religious gatherings and religious or faith-based gatherings." Plaintiffs sought an injunction or TRO enjoining defendants from enforcing the executive orders against plaintiffs and an order declaring the orders unconstitutional. 2020 WL 2630282.

In their May 28 response to the motion for TRO, defendants asserted that "the purpose of these orders is to protect the public from the COVID-19 pandemic," not to target or discriminate against plaintiffs' first amendment rights. Defendants argued that the plaintiffs had "no reasonable likelihood of success on the merits of their claims" because the orders were enacted in good faith and in furtherance of public safety.

The next day, the United States Department of Justice filed a statement of interest, stating that "The Court should grant the plaintiffs’ motion for a temporary restraining order, and Plaintiffs’ group prayer should be allowed to proceed without fear of prosecution." The DOJ explained "that because Colorado appears to be treating similarly situated non-religious activity, such as in-person dining in restaurants, better than places of worship these actions may constitute a violation of the church’s constitutional right to the free exercise of religion."

That same day, the Supreme Court, in South Bay United Pentecostal Church v. Newsom, denied an application for injunctive relief similar to the relief sought in this case. There, the Supreme Court stated that the "restrictions [on places of worship] appear consistent with the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment."

On May 30, in light of the Supreme Court's decision, the plaintiffs withdrew the request for preliminary relief.

On June 1, the defendants filed a status report containing draft guidelines for restrictions on places of worship. The guidelines suggested an indoor capacity of no more than 50% or 50 people, along with social distancing, masks, and sanitation measures.

In the next few days, thousands of people protested police violence. On June 10, the plaintiffs filed an amended complaint, alleging that the defendants “permitted and encouraged these protest gatherings while continuing to impose draconian restrictions on religious gatherings.” Concurrently, they filed a renewed motion for a temporary restraining order and a preliminary injunction.

The court denied the motion on June 16, stating that the "notion that the non-enforcement of social distancing during a protest means that the State is engaged in a variety of constitutional misconduct directed at religious institutions is far from apparent" and that "the assertion that Defendants are treating Plaintiffs differently from comparable secular gatherings is 'improbable.'"

The case is ongoing.

Aaron Gurley - 06/05/2020
Averyn Lee - 06/20/2020


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Issues and Causes of Action
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Issues
Constitutional Clause
Equal Protection
Free Exercise Clause
Freedom of speech/association
Content of Injunction
Preliminary relief denied
Defendant-type
Hospital/Health Department
Discrimination-area
Accommodation / Leave
Discrimination-basis
Religion discrimination
General
Religious programs / policies
Plaintiff Type
Non-profit religious organization
Private Plaintiff
Causes of Action 42 U.S.C. § 1983
Declaratory Judgment Act, 28 U.S.C. § 2201
Defendant(s) Executive Director of the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment
Governor of Colorado
Plaintiff Description A small church in Colorado and one of its pastors
Class action status sought No
Class action status granted Moot
Filed Pro Se No
Prevailing Party Defendant
Public Int. Lawyer No
Nature of Relief None yet
None
Source of Relief None yet
None
Filed 05/25/2020
Case Ongoing Yes
Additional Resources
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  See this case at CourtListener.com (May provide additional documents and, for active cases, real-time alerts)
Docket(s)
1:20-cv-1480 (D. Colo.)
FA-CO-0009-9000.pdf | Detail
Date: 06/16/2020
Source: PACER [Public Access to Court Electronic Records]
General Documents
Verified Complaint [ECF# 1]
FA-CO-0009-0001.pdf | Detail
Date: 05/25/2020
Source: PACER [Public Access to Court Electronic Records]
Reply in Support of Plaintiffs' Motion for Temporary Restraining Order and Motion for Preliminary Injunction [ECF# 26]
FA-CO-0009-0002.pdf | Detail
Date: 05/28/2020
Source: PACER [Public Access to Court Electronic Records]
The United States' Statement of Interest in Support of Plaintiffs' Motion for Temporary Restraining Order and Motion for Preliminary Injunction [ECF# 28]
FA-CO-0009-0003.pdf | Detail
Date: 05/29/2020
Source: PACER [Public Access to Court Electronic Records]
Verified First Amended Complaint [ECF# 34 (& 34-1 to 34-3)]
FA-CO-0009-0004.pdf | Detail
Date: 06/10/2020
Source: PACER [Public Access to Court Electronic Records]
Plaintiffs' Renewed Motion for Temporary Restraining Order and for Preliminary Injunction [ECF# 35 (& 35-1)]
FA-CO-0009-0005.pdf | Detail
Date: 06/10/2020
Source: PACER [Public Access to Court Electronic Records]
State Defendants' Opposition to Plaintiffs' Renewed Motion for Temporary Restraining Order and For Preliminary Injunction [ECF# 39 (& 39-1 to 39-13)]
FA-CO-0009-0006.pdf | Detail
Date: 06/12/2020
Source: PACER [Public Access to Court Electronic Records]
Order [ECF# 41] (2020 WL 3263902) (D. Colo.)
FA-CO-0009-0007.pdf | WESTLAW | Detail
Date: 06/16/2020
show all people docs
Judges Hegarty, Michael E. (D. Colo.) [Magistrate] show/hide docs
FA-CO-0009-9000
Moore, Raymond Paul (D. Colo.) show/hide docs
FA-CO-0009-0007 | FA-CO-0009-9000
Plaintiff's Lawyers Arrington, Barry Kevin (Colorado) show/hide docs
FA-CO-0009-0001 | FA-CO-0009-0002 | FA-CO-0009-0004 | FA-CO-0009-0005 | FA-CO-0009-9000
Defendant's Lawyers Buckley, Emily B. (Colorado) show/hide docs
FA-CO-0009-0006 | FA-CO-0009-9000
Hanlon-Leh, Natalie Marie (Colorado) show/hide docs
FA-CO-0009-0006 | FA-CO-0009-9000
Kuhn, W. Eric (Colorado) show/hide docs
FA-CO-0009-0006 | FA-CO-0009-9000
Lorch, Ryan K. (Colorado) show/hide docs
FA-CO-0009-0006 | FA-CO-0009-9000
Olson, Eric (Colorado) show/hide docs
FA-CO-0009-0006 | FA-CO-0009-9000
Weiser, Philip J. (Colorado) show/hide docs
FA-CO-0009-0006
Other Lawyers Dreiband, Eric S. (District of Columbia) show/hide docs
FA-CO-0009-0003
Dunn, Jason R. (Colorado) show/hide docs
FA-CO-0009-0003
Maugeri, Alexander V. (Colorado) show/hide docs
FA-CO-0009-0003
Treene, Eric W. (District of Columbia) show/hide docs
FA-CO-0009-0003 | FA-CO-0009-9000

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