Pastor Darryl Knappen gestured to groups of tables and chairs where church members gather for meals at Cornerstone Church in Alexandria.

“The Lord has commanded us to eat together frequently,” Knappen said. “How do you do that from 6 feet apart?”

He continued through the church building, walked up the staircase and pointed to small, round tables, each surrounded by four blue chairs.

“This is where we have somebody take a chair and everybody comes around, lays their hands on and prays for a need, a concern, a worry,” Knappen said. “Can’t do that 6 feet apart.”

Cornerstone Church and two other Minnesota churches filed a complaint filed through the U.S. District Court of Minnesota Thursday, Aug. 13, which stated that Gov. Tim Walz's requirements involving face masks, social distancing and indoor capacity limits in places of worship violate the First Amendment right to religious freedom.

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Minneapolis-based attorney Erick Kaardal is representing the plaintiffs, which also includes Land of Promise Church in Buffalo and Lifespring Church in Crosby.

The three churches sued Walz, Attorney General Keith Ellison and three county attorneys in which the churches are located. Douglas County attorney Chad Larson was named in the lawsuit.

A churchgoer could be fined up to $100 and charged with a misdemeanor for not wearing a facemask, according to the lawsuit. Knappen said he could face 90 days in jail or up to a $25,000 fine for not following the governor’s mandate.

“The governor doesn’t have authority over the church,” Knappen said. “The Constitution is very explicit about that. We have a First Amendment right to worship as we please.”

Kaardal said Thursday on a virtual news conference that religious activities and places should be exempted from the orders, as some other states have done. He said that “one way to attack the disease (COVID-19) is prayer.”

Knappen printed out a list of Bible passages in support of gatherings and the laying on of hands.

“We have to obey God rather than man,” Knappen said. “He’s given us commands in Scripture that the governor has outlawed.”

County attorney speaks out

Larson was contacted and at first didn’t comment. He later sent an email to the newspaper saying he typically doesn’t comment on threatened litigation, but was going to make an exception.

The county attorney said he learned through the media that the church was going to sue him in his official capacity because he has the authority to enforce the governor’s executive order regarding masks and social distancing.

“I still haven’t been legally served with anything related to the lawsuit described in the plaintiffs’ press releases,” said Larson.

Douglas County Attorney Chad Larson
Douglas County Attorney Chad Larson

In his statement, Larson said his office has not prosecuted a single person for violating the governor’s order regarding masks and social distancing – church attendees or anyone else.

“This problem is a matter of education, not prosecution,” he said.

Larson also said that the plaintiff church is located in the city of Alexandria and that a violation of the governor’s order is a misdemeanor and that his office does not prosecute misdemeanors that occur within the city of Alexandria.

“I will gladly accept service of the summons and complaint for this lawsuit,” Larson said. “However, going back to my second point, I believe that the plaintiffs should probably do a little more legal homework regarding who they should properly sue before publicizing it and failing to actually serve who they think are proper defendants. Again, my office doesn’t prosecute misdemeanors in Alexandria, nor do I.”

Echo Press reporter Celeste Edenloff and Forum News Service reporter Sarah Mearhoff contributed to this report.