A federal judge in North Carolina issued an order Saturday to allow indoor worship services, blocking Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper’s enforcement of restrictions on churches during the coronavirus pandemic.
“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,” stated Judge James C. Dever III, according to The Associated Press.
“The assembly for religious worship provisions in [Executive Order] 138 starkly illustrate the extent to which religious entities and individuals are not subject to neutral or generally applicable law,” Dever wrote in a 22-page order granting the emergency motion for a temporary restraining order to two Baptist churches, a minister and a Christian revival group that filed a federal lawsuit.
Cooper’s order prevented most religious organizations from holding indoor services for more than 10 people, but he will not appeal the court’s decision.
“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,” the governor’s spokesman, Ford Porter, said in a statement. He said churches are being urged to voluntarily follow public health directives.
The court has scheduled a hearing for May 29 to decide whether the order will become permanent, according to The News & Observer.
“We are very thankful and we are elated that our First Amendment rights would be re-established,” the Rev. Ronnie Baity, founder and pastor of Berean Baptist Church in Winston-Salem and president of nonprofit organization Return America, was quoted as saying.
Baity said he will not hold indoor services this weekend as they had already planned for an outside service but will move inside next week.
“Freedoms curbed eventually becomes no freedom at all,” Baity had said earlier. “If there’s ever been a time our communities need the church, it is now.”
The lawsuit called Cooper’s orders “unconstitutional both facially and as applied to Plaintiffs.”
“Governor Cooper’s Orders have been interpreted, applied, and enforced by his Office and local law enforcement authorities as prohibiting indoor gatherings for religious worship by more than 10 people,” the lawsuit read.
“The Orders are not neutral laws of general applicability because they target Constitutionally protected activity, significantly burdening the Plaintiffs’ right to freedom of religion and assembly, establishing an orthodox form of religious exercise approved by the State, all the while providing broad exemptions for many other gatherings of more than 10 people that are not constitutionally protected.”