A federal judge on Saturday handed North Carolina churches a victory by allowing them to meet indoors despite an order from the state’s governor limiting such gatherings to 10 people.
The order by North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper, a Democrat, required worship services of 10 or more people to be conducted outdoors unless it was decided it was “impossible” to do so. If law enforcement determined the church was wrong to meet indoors, the leaders of the congregation could be served with a misdemeanor.
A pair of churches and a Christian organization, Return America, filed suit against Cooper.
U.S. District Judge James C. Dever III, in his Saturday decision, issued a statewide injunction against Cooper’s order, saying the plaintiffs had demonstrated a likelihood to win the case.
“There is no pandemic exception to the Constitution of the United States or the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment,” wrote Dever, who was nominated by President George W. Bush.
The churches, Dever wrote, “have pledged to practice social distancing and other public health guidelines.”
Dever criticized Cooper’s order for exempting businesses and companies but not carving out an exception for churches. Restrictions “inexplicably applied to one group and exempted from another do little to further” the goal of stopping the spread of COVID-19 “and do much to burden religious freedom,” Dever wrote.
“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,” Dever wrote. “... Likewise, common sense suggests that religious leaders and worshipers (whether inside or outside North Carolina) have every incentive to behave safely and responsibly whether working indoors, shopping indoors, or worshiping indoors.”
Cooper said he would not appeal the judge’s ruling.
Photo courtesy: Debby Hudson/Unsplash
Michael Foust has covered the intersection of faith and news for 20 years. His stories have appeared in Baptist Press, Christianity Today, The Christian Post, the Leaf-Chronicle, the Toronto Star and the Knoxville News-Sentinel.