County considers resolution reaffirming First Amendment rights during COVID-19

Members of Winter Park Christian, located in Tabernash, shared their issues with the coronavirus restrictions on places of worship with the BOCC earlier this month.
McKenna Harford /

After hearing grievances about the coronavirus restrictions from local church members, Grand County Commissioners plan to sign a resolution in support of First Amendment rights.

On Tuesday, a few church representatives shared with commissioners how hard limited religious services have been for their members eager to return to worship. Under the state’s Safer At Home order, places of worship can have up to 50% their normal capacity up to 50 people per room, or up to 100 people for outdoor services. Wearing face masks and maintaining six feet of distance is also strongly encouraged.

“We’re wondering what we should do when we have to start turning people away — that’s the real concern for us,” said one member from Winter Park Christian Church. 

Other church members who spoke to the commissioners agreed they didn’t want to turn anyone away. Mark Line of Winter Park Christian said the blanket coronavirus restrictions just aren’t working locally.

“Our First Amendment guarantees our inalienable right to gather as a worshipping body, you can’t take that away from us,” he said.

All of the church representatives felt the limits on capacity hurt their members’ ability to worship, and Line requested that commissioners lift the limits on places of worship and send a message to the state.

Commissioner Kris Manguso agreed with Line and said First Amendment rights have been treated differently by the state when it comes to religious services vs. protests.

“I really struggle with the fact that the people who follow the rules, which is Grand County, we sit up here and we don’t let churches gather, or things like the fair, or parades, or Fourth of July … but if you call it a protest, you can gather without masks and do whatever you want,” Manguso said. “I would like for us to consider having a resolution drafted … stating we do support the First Amendment.”

Similar to the resolution supporting Second Amendment rights the commissioners signed during conversations about the Red Flag law, Commissioner Merrit Linke said he’s in favor of a resolution supporting the First Amendment, but noted it may not change anything. 

While Commissioner Rich Cimino agreed that he didn’t have a problem signing a resolution in support of First Amendment rights, he noted that, to his knowledge, neither protestors nor church-goers have been prosecuted for breaking public health orders at this time.

“I don’t think any church-goers have had those penalties imposed on them, likewise with the protesters,” Cimino said. “I think it’s been described as a drastic difference in the two different gatherings, but I think actually the elected government’s response to both those instances have been quite uniform.”

Dr. Darcy Selenke, a member of the county’s COVID-19 response team, also noted that places of worship aren’t being specifically targeted, but she said the prolonged gatherings come with a higher risk of spreading COVID-19.

“Public health officials feel it’s an endangerment to put large amounts of people in a confined space, breathing, which expels the virus, for long periods of time, so that’s where the thought process (behind the restriction) came from,” Selenke said. 

The resolution will be brought to the commissioners to sign at their June 15 meeting.

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