Lighthouse Baptist Church/Chemung County lawsuit “resolved,” church lawyer threatens future legal action

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(WETM) – A lawsuit filed against Chemung by the Lighthouse Baptist Church has been “amicably resolved,” according to Chemung County Attorney Hyder Hussain.

The church had been closed by the county after a COVID-19 outbreak, but the church argued that the closure was a violation of their 1st and 14th 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, 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.

“The entire injunction prevents the county from continuing to act in an unconstitutional fashion. It does not in any way chastise Lighthouse Baptist Church or suggest the Lighthouse Baptist Church have done anything wrong or require us to do anything that the county had asked us to do.”

Rupps says this “is not the last that the county is going to hear from Lighthouse Baptist Church. We have other issues that are going to be pursued… involving the defamatory comments of the County Executive (Chris Moss) and other misbehavior by County Executive and other county functionaries. So we’re not done with the county of Chemung.”

18 News spoke with County Executive Moss regarding Rupp’s statement of further litigation against the county, to which Moss said Rupp is “welcome to do so.”

“Lighthouse Baptist Church should spend their time focusing on the state guidelines to make sure that the parishioners are safe from COVID-19, and if they don’t, they’ll find themselves under the same restrictions that they were just lifted,” said Moss.

The church also released a statement through their attorneys on Friday evening.

According to the original 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 stated “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 changed attorneys and is now represented by R. Anthony Rupp III of Rupp Baase Pfalzgraf Cunningham.

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.”

This is a developing story and 18 News will have more information as it becomes available.

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