Two churches suing Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz over his stay-at-home order asked a judge on Monday to fully reopen places of worship, alleging the relaxed restrictions starting this week continue to violate their First Amendment rights.

In a federal lawsuit, attorneys for the churches say Walz is "treating religious organizations as second-class citizens" by limiting their services to 10 people while allowing more retailers and small businesses to open at 50% capacity.

"So while it will now be easy once again to go shopping for home furnishings or new clothes on a Sunday, you still are not allowed to attend church, temple or mosque, even though those religious organizations are able to comply with exactly the same public health guidelines," said the attorneys in a statement Monday. "It is clearly unconstitutional for the governor to allow people to go to the Mall of America but not Living Word Christian Center."

The lawsuit was filed by the Upper Midwest Law Center, a newly formed law firm with a stated "pro-freedom" mission to fight for limited government. The plaintiffs include Northland Baptist Church of St. Paul and Brooklyn Park megachurch Living Word Christian Center, along with several small businesses.

Together they say Walz, Attorney General Keith Ellison and several Twin Cities county attorneys violated their religious freedoms by closing church services during the pandemic and prosecuting those who violated the governor's order. The lawsuit alleged Walz's order picked "winners and losers" by closing some businesses, schools and places of worship, while allowing others deemed "essential" to remain open.

That order expired on Monday, but other restrictions remain in place that allow business owners to begin reopening at limited capacity.

In a statement Monday, Ellison said he hasn't seen the lawsuit and can't comment on the specifics.

"But I don't need to see the specifics of the lawsuit to know that it's a distraction from what we all need to be focused on — fighting the pandemic," he said. "If the plaintiffs want to choose filing a political lawsuit over working with us to chart a course to reopen Minnesota safely, they can. But let's be clear that they're choosing to play politics rather than focus on keeping people safe."

In a statement responding to the original allegations, Walz spokesman Teddy Tschann said: "All of the Governor's actions have been grounded in the need to protect the health and safety of Minnesotans, and he will continue to work to find ways to get Minnesotans back to work and to a place where they can safely gather in large groups."

Upper Midwest now asks U.S. Judge Wilhelmina Wright to grant a temporary restraining order in the next 10 days that would make the churches exempt from the state's restrictions.

Andy Mannix • 612-673-4036