Former House Speaker Lee Chatfield | Andrew Roth
State House Speaker Lee Chatfield (R-Levering) and his father, the Rev. Stanley Chatfield III, both filed lawsuits against Gov. Gretchen Whitmer on Wednesday to limit her executive powers during the COVID-19 outbreak.
Stanley Chatfield, a pastor at the Northern Michigan Baptist Bible Church in Burt Lake, joined a coalition of six other pastors and churches in suing the governor for allegedly violating the freedom of religion, freedom of assembly and separation of powers.
Whitmer’s latest executive order extends the stay-home order that closed many non-essential businesses in Michigan until May 15 and prohibited public and private gatherings. However, she has since relaxed rules for “low-risk” businesses, like golf courses and landscaping, while Republican lawmakers continue to push to open the economy faster.
Lee Chatfield and Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey (R-Clarklake) announced a separate lawsuit from the Legislature claiming the governor’s emergency powers are unconstitutional and aims to limit Whitmer’s ability to issue orders during the COVID-19 pandemic and other crises.
Lee Chatfield said he did not know all the details of his father’s lawsuit.
“I don’t know too much about it,” the Republican leader said Thursday. “My dad mentioned a few days ago that he was working with a group of pastors, and the next I heard about it was from the media yesterday. I told him I wish him luck.”
Stanley Chatfield did not respond to a phone call from the Advance seeking comment.
On April 30, the GOP-controlled Legislature passed legislation which gave Shirkey and Chatfield the green light to pursue legal action if the governor were to extend the state of emergency without approval.
That evening, Whitmer went ahead with the extension anyway through Executive Order 2020-70.
She said she is leaning on two laws that allow her to hold on to her executive powers during the pandemic, despite the GOP-led Legislature’s pushback. Attorney General Dana Nessel this week said that her orders are enforceable.
The Emergency Powers of Governor Act of 1945 lets the governor declare a state of emergency without the Legislature’s approval, and the 1976 Emergency Management Act, which also allows the governor emergency powers, but states the Legislature must approve any extensions of an emergency declaration beyond 28 days.
The lawsuit filed by the group of religious leaders aims to deem those two laws as unconstitutional, claiming it bars Michiganders from gathering at church to worship.
Orders in other states limiting religious gatherings have become culture war flashpoints, especially around Easter. A federal court in California this week upheld California’s ban on church services during the COVID-19 crisis.
Besides Stanley Chatfield, other plaintiffs include the Word of Faith Christian Center Church in Southfield; Keith Butler, a bishop at Word of Faith; Michigan Association of Christian Schools Director Tim Schmig; Whole Life Church in Sturgis; annd Chuck Vizthum, a pastor at Whole Life Church.
In Executive order 2020-21, which has since been rescinded and amended in following orders, restricted a number of non-essential activities and did not include an exception for churches and places of worship.
In March, Whitmer said on “This Week” on ABC that Republican legislators requested clarification to her order that places of worship would not be cited under her ban on gatherings of 50 people or more, because of separation of church and state concerns.
However, the suit says “nothing in this provision applies to individuals attending a place or worship as clergy or congregants and does not apply to Plaintiffs.”
“A promise to not subject a geographic location or its ‘owner’ to the criminal penalty under EO 2020-70 merely adorns the constitution with a fig leaf and does not protect individuals or change the clear language of the order prohibiting any religious services or other ministry functions at a church or religious organization,” the lawsuit continued.
Whitmer spokesperson Tiffany Brown said the office will not comment on the pending lawsuit.
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