ELMIRA, N.Y. (WETM) – The Lighthouse Baptist Church has filed a lawsuit against Chemung County after the church was shutdown earlier this year due to a COVID-19 outbreak.
The lawsuit names Chemung County Executive Christopher Moss, Public Health Director Peter Buzzetti, and Chemung County Health Department Chair Mari Delaney with two counts of a violation of the First Amendment of the Constitution and three counts of a violation of the 14th amendment of the Constitution.
According to the lawsuit, the church “has stated on numerous occasions that it is willing to comply with the Guidance, yet Defendants will not allow LBC to reopen until it agrees to comply with
requirements that go above and beyond those requirements set forth in the Guidance.”
The lawsuit states “the Holy Spirit is with LBC membership when they worship together at LBC. God is not there on a computer screen. Mr. Mayer also cannot offer encouragement to other congregants through a computer monitor.”
On Sept. 6 the church was notified of two positive cases of COVID-19 within its congregation. In September Chemung County Executive Chris Moss told 18 News that there were approximately 70 cases of COVID-19 and one death connected to the church.
County Executive Moss said at the time that the church “did not follow the guidelines” implemented by the county and state.
“Only some of the folks were wearing facial coverings, we know there was no social distancing of six feet taking place. We also have information that a parishioner who was positive was allowed to attend church, not only attend church but sing in the choir.”
According to the New York State guidelines for religious and funeral services, there can be no more than 33% capacity in a church once their region is in phase four, six feet must be maintained amongst all individuals, singing activity must provide for a distance between individuals of 12 feet, and face coverings should be worn at all times.
The church has also changed attorneys and is now represented by R. Anthony Rupp III of Rupp Baase Pfalzgraf Cunningham. 18 News has reached out to Rupp for additional comment.
In September Lighthouse Baptist Church was represented by James Ostrowski, an attorney out of Buffalo, who held a virtual press conference during which he claimed that there was “no evidence at all that anything improper was done” by the church.
Ostrowski said during his press conference that the church was working with Chemung County to implement a reopening plan, but on Monday rejected the guidelines proposed by the county attorney.
One guideline Ostrowski mentioned being rejected was a daily log of who visited the church, which would be submitted every day.
“It’s too much, it’s not justified. They don’t have the legal authority to do it. There’s no scientific evidence that this type of burden is, is justified… if we locked everybody in the house for the next month and ordered them not to go to any buildings over two stories high we could eliminate all elevator accidents forever.”
When asked how he could compare elevator accidents to COVID-19, Ostrowski said he was “just using that as an example.”
Ostrowski says that the church is “willing to compromise and go along with things that we think are illegal just to avoid litigation and to get the church back up and running.”
All of the court documents can be read below:
Chemung County Executive Moss declined to comment and referred 18 News to Chemung County Attorney Hyder Hussain. County Attorney Hussain acknowledged the notification of the lawsuit and said that the county will “respond accordingly.”
This is a developing story and 18 News and we will have more information as it becomes available.