ELMIRA, N.Y. (WETM) — A new defamation action against Chemung County has been filed in New York State court by Lighthouse Baptist Church. The church says they were treated unfairly during the Coronavirus pandemic and had to comply with several guidelines other places of worship did not have to adhere to.
The case began in September of 2020 when Chemung County attributed a COVID-19 cluster of cases to the church. Lighthouse Baptist claims the county did this without any evidence and during the reopening process, the church was forced to observe COVID-19 protocols that went beyond New York State guidance. They also claim the identification as a “COVID cluster” defamed the church and diminished their standing in the community.
“The Lighthouse Baptist Church felt like they were being treated differently than other houses of worship in the area,” Michael Donlon, Esq., attorney at Welch, Donlon & Czarples, PLLC, told 18 News Thursday.
Basic rights, like the right to assemble, changed in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic and emergency powers that were granted to the Governor and New York State Department of Health. These powers allowed for several freedoms to be “frozen in time” according to Donlon.
“We believe it was a scheme designed to defame the church and its congregants and ruin its standing in the area,” Anthony Rupp III, attorney for Lighthouse Baptist, added.
Chemung County Attorney Hyder Hussain said this is not a formal lawsuit that was filed by the church, but he plans to defend the action once something is filed in court.
“When the action comes, we will defend it and I do plan to defend it.“Chemung County Attorney, M. Hyder Hussain, Esq.
Last year, a lawsuit filed against Chemung by the Lighthouse Baptist Church was “amicably resolved,” according to Chemung County Attorney Hyder Hussain. Now, lawyers for the church refiled the case in Federal Court, alleging the county treated the church unfairly.
“I think that the attorneys looked at it and said if we’re going to do this or if we’re even going to preserve it, we need to file this petition for the late notice of claim to get permission from the state of New York Supreme Court to even go forward with the claim in Federal court,” Donlon continued.
There are lawsuits in several states questioning the use of emergency powers in the interest of public health versus basic liberties guaranteed by the Constitution.
“It’s going to raise a lot of the questions that we had when all of these government policies and procedures were being put in place without any precedent that was significantly hampering our freedoms,” Donlon concluded.
The church was closed by the county after a COVID-19 outbreak, but the church argued that the closure was a violation of their First and Fourteenth Amendment rights. According to County Attorney Hussain, the church may resume activities as long as they comply with regulations, including New York state’s interim guidance for religious services.
Lighthouse Baptist Church Attorney Anthony Rupp III of Rupp Baase Pfalzgraf Cunningham LCC provided 18 News with the stipulated injunction last year, which says the church will follow the mandated federal, state, and local guidance, but will not follow any additional restrictions implemented by the health department.