Three churches in Minnesota on Thursday sued Gov. Tim Walz, Attorney General Keith Ellison and other officials over state executive orders that require that people wear masks and follow social distancing practices during religious services in connection with combating the coronavirus pandemic.

"Governor Walz wants to prosecute Minnesotans for religious attendance," read a statement from attorney Erick Kaardal, who is representing churches in Douglas, Wright and Crow Wing counties. "We are going to do our best not to see that happen."

Along with challenging the mask mandate, the federal lawsuit is challenging the governor's executive order limiting the number of people attending services and requiring enforcement of social distancing standards.

In response, Ellison said in a statement that "my office and I review every executive order for its compliance with the law and state and federal constitutions. I stand behind the legality and constitutionality of this executive order. We will defend it strongly in court just as we have so far successfully defended others in court."

In May, for example, a church in St. Paul and another in Brooklyn Park sued Walz over his more restrictive stay-at-home executive order in force at the time, which had barred places of worship from conducting indoor services.

Through the third week of July, according to data released by the Attorney General's Office, it has so far spent $170,000 and 1,300 staff hours defending against various lawsuits and petitions against the state and the governor, "so far with a 100% success rate."

The churches suing this time are Cornerstone in Alexandria, Land of Promise east of Buffalo and Lifespring in Crosby.

"Under Minnesota law, these religious activities are criminal activities," the suit reads. "As a result [of] the threat of prosecution by the attorney general and county attorneys, religious attendance at the churches has declined."

Kaardal's statement noted that other states have excluded churches from COVID-19 mask mandates.

"Those states have recognized that you cannot criminalize religious attendance at houses of worship for any reason," Kaardal said. "Christians of all denominations, Muslims, and Orthodox Jews are bound by their faith to worship together. Time-honored rites and rituals, including prayers, singing, communion, and a laying of hands in blessing, are among those elements that comprise the free exercise of religion."

The suit asks the court to declare as unconstitutional the governor's orders addressing religious services.

Other defendants in the suit are the county attorneys in the counties where the three churches are located.

Paul Walsh • 612-673-4482