Thanks to an order issued by a federal judge on Saturday, churches in North Carolina enjoyed their right to worship in-person with their congregations this weekend despite warnings from Governor Roy Cooper that such gatherings could promote the spread of coronavirus.
According to the Raleigh News and Observer, the order issued by Judge James C. Dever III notes that Cooper’s stay-at-home order allows only up to 10 people to gather indoors for religious services, yet other entities, such as certain businesses, are allowed to reach up to 50% building capacity. Funeral services, Judge Dever noted, even allow up to 50 people.
“The record, at this admittedly early stage of the case, reveals that the Governor appears to trust citizens to perform non-religious activities indoors (such as shopping or working or selling merchandise) but does not trust them to do the same when they worship together indoors,” reads Judge Dever’s ruling in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina Eastern Division.
In the most recent of Gov. Cooper’s slew of executive orders related to the pandemic, religious services with social distancing are required to be held “outdoors unless impossible.” Indoor services were limited to 10 people, at least 6 feet apart.
Dever also pointed out that the governor’s counsel indicated that a sheriff and a law enforcement officer have the ultimate authority in deciding whether or not it is “impossible” for any church to worship outside.
“That’s a remarkable answer in light of the Free Exercise Clause,” the judge wrote.
“The court trusts worshipers and their leaders to look after one another and society while exercising their free exercise rights just as they and their fellow citizens (whether religious or not) do when engaged in non-religious activities,” Dever’s order states.
The temporary order came after two Baptist churches, a pastor, and a Christian revival group filed a lawsuit against the Democratic governor on Thursday, arguing that his executive order violated their First Amendment rights.
A spokesperson for Gov. Cooper’s office told the News and Observer that, while he disagreed with it, he wouldn’t appeal Judge Dever’s ruling. Instead, Cooper’s office urged houses of worship and their leaders to voluntarily follow public health guidance.
“We don’t want indoor meetings to become hotspots for the virus, and our health experts continue to warn that large groups sitting together inside for long periods of time are much more likely to cause the spread of COVID-19,” a statement from Cooper reads, in part.
A hearing is scheduled for May 29 to determine whether the order will become permanent. Until then, Cooper is prohibited from taking enforcement actions against religious worshipers.
“We are very thankful and we are elated that our First Amendment rights would be re-established,” said Ronnie Baity, founder and pastor of Berean Baptist Church in Winston-Salem and president of nonprofit organization Return America.
State Sen. Warren Daniel (R-Burke County) issued a statement on Saturday, calling the court order a victory for the constitutional right to worship freely.
“Gov. Cooper cannot treat retailers and ABC stores one way and houses of worship another,” said Sen. Daniel. “Nor can he allow one type of worship service to proceed while prohibiting another. Hopefully, this decision will put some guardrails on what has been unchecked executive power.”
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