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Constitutionality of local church health order questioned

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FORT WAYNE, Ind. (WPTA21) -- Two Fort Wayne city councilmen pushed back against the Allen County health commissioner's order to prohibit attendance at churches or worship services while only recommending that other gatherings be limited to 10 people.

"Obviously we have a Constitutionally protected right under our First Amendment both to peaceably assemble and to freely exercise our religion.," Republican 1st District Councilman Paul Ensley says.

He and fellow Republican Jason Arp contacted Indiana's attorney general about an order last weekend from Allen County's health commissioner that recommended gatherings of no more than 10 people at other functions or events, yet prohibited attendance at churches.

The attorney general agreed, and sent a letter to Dr. Deborah McHahan saying her order amounted to unconstitutional religious discrimination, and urged her to revise it.

Many places of worship voluntarily closed before Dr. McMahan ordered them to, and are broadcasting services or using other means to reach their congregations.

Ensley says while he thinks people should not gather to worship at this time, he took issue with the way Dr. McMahan's decree was worded.

"I want to be very clear that I'm not encouraging anybody to hold a church service or to attend a church service, and that all of the advice of Dr. McMahan should be followed," he says.

Many places of worship voluntarily closed before Dr. McMahan ordered them to, and are broadcasting services or using other means to reach their congregations.

Ensley says he just wanted to make sure people's rights were protected.

"My constituents elected me to the city council to stand up for their Constitutional rights, and so certainly that's what we want to do is make sure that the rule of law is protected, the Constitution of the United States and the state of Indiana is protected," he says.

Dr. McMahan said in a video conference call that local health officials need to have the authority to issue orders for what's best for their area.

"Based on local epidemiology and the persistent confusion up until and including Saturday evening, despite, really, a number of attempts to clarify the need to not meet in groups of 10 or more, after careful consideration and vetting through our board, I made the decision to implement the existing law which allows us to limit the church gatherings to 10 or less," McMahan says.

She says her order lapsed at midnight Tuesday night when the governor's stay at home order went into effect.

The only exceptions are if you're going to an essential job or running essential errands.

Corinne Rose

Corinne Rose is a reporter for WPTA.

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