Churches and other houses of worship can start holding services again in North Carolina following a ruling by federal District Court Judge James C. Dever III on Saturday, May 16.
Two Baptist churches and a nonprofit associated with 130 churches filed a federal lawsuit on Thursday, May 14 against Gov. Roy Cooper claiming that his Executive Order 138 (EO 138) restricting indoor worship services to 10 people or less was unconstitutional and requesting a temporary restraining order that Judge Dever granted.
Judge Dever’s order granting the temporary restraining order is scathing to the point that it comes close to what a layman would call “making fun of” the arguments justifying treating indoor religious activity different from other indoor activities such as shopping or working allowed by the most recent stay-at-home order, EO 138.
Judge Dever states, “There is no pandemic exception to the Constitution of the United States or the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment.”
He also states, “The assembly for religious worship provisions in EO 138 starkly illustrate the extent to which religious entities and individuals are not subject to neutral or generally applicable law. 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 indoors together.”
The order also notes that 15 other states have placed no attendance limitations on religious gatherings and the “Governor has failed to site any peer-reviewed study showing that religious interactions in those 15 states have accelerated the spread of COVID-19 in any manner distinguishable from non-religious interactions.”
Judge Dever notes the inconsistencies in EO 138 which allows indoor religious services to have more than 10 people present if it is “impossible” to do otherwise and leads into the discussion of funerals with, “But wait there’s more inconsistency.”
An exception to the 10 person limit on indoor religious services in EO 138 is for funerals where up to 50 people are allowed to gather, and the Judge Dever states, “At oral arguments, the Governor’s counsel conceded that there is no public health rationale for allowing 50 people to gather inside at a funeral, but to limit an indoor religious worship service to no more than 10 people. Some funerals are religious. Some funerals are not religious, the Governor’s counsel could not explain why the Governor trusts those who run funerals to have 50 people inside to attend the funeral, but only trusts religious entities and individuals to have 10 people inside to worship.”
Following the ruling the number of people who attend indoor religious services will not be limited but will be held to the same social distancing and hygiene standards as other activities.
Cooper’s office has said there is no intent to appeal the ruling and Judge Dever has scheduled a hearing for Friday, May 29.