Lockdowns are lifting across the country, and churches are excited to meet in person again.
Some governors are limiting religious gatherings, however, despite fully reopening businesses.
In response to these restrictions on religious freedom, one North Carolina judge wasn’t having any of it.
“There is no pandemic exception to the Constitution of the United States or the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment,” wrote U.S. District Judge James C. Dever III.
Judge Dever spoke out in response to a new order by North Carolina’s Governor Roy Cooper.
Governor Cooper has reopened the state of North Carolina, allowing businesses and companies to resume normal work as long as they remain under social distancing and sanitizing guidelines.
But the governor cracked down on religious services, stating that religious gatherings of 10 or more people should be conducted outdoors unless it was “impossible” to do so.
Cooper stated that, if law enforcement officials determined that a church was “wrong” to meet indoors, the officials could accuse the congregation’s leaders of a misdemeanor.
“We don’t want our churches to become hot spots for this virus,” Cooper said.
“When people are gathered together indoors and closer to each other for more than 10 minutes, the virus has a significant chance to spread from one person to the next and we’ve seen tragic consequences when that’s the case.”
But businesses throughout North Carolina have been given the chance to accommodate more than 10 people at a time—so why not churches?
In response to Governor Cooper’s blatant discrimination, two North Carolina churches partnered with a Christian legal organization, Return America, to file suit against the order.
They were joined by dozens of other pastors, religious leaders, and even Republican representatives from across North Carolina, all of whom protested Cooper’s order as “a violation of Constitutional rights.”
Return America stated that North Carolina’s churches were being treated unfairly in the reopening process.
“There’s a lot of mixed signals being sent,” said the organization. “We have contacted [Governor Cooper] on numerous occasions…he will negotiate with other people, but he’s failed to negotiate with us so he’s left us with no alternative to confront it.”
Churches throughout the state “have pledged to practice social distancing and other public health guidelines,” so Return America believes that congregations should be allowed to meet indoors and resume services with as much normalcy as possible.
And, thankfully, a federal judge agrees!
When the suit was brought before Judge Dever, the district judge issued a statewide injunction against Governor Cooper’s order.
The judge criticized Cooper for burdening churches and worship centers with restrictions while allowing “secular” businesses and companies to operate more freely.
“Restrictions inexplicably applied to one group and exempted from another do little to further [the goal of containing COVID-19] and do much to burden religious freedom,” Dever wrote in his decision.
Judge Dever noted that Cooper’s excessive focus on religious groups suggested an attitude of discrimination.
“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.”
“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,” the judge concluded.
Governor Cooper has stated that he will not appeal the decision, so churches may worship together for the foreseeable future until the case is heard again.
“We are thankful that the Constitution is being protected,” Return America wrote in a brief response to Judge Dever’s proclamation. “We are thankful that…al churches are protected.”
The organization cautioned worshipers to be responsible in using their freedom.
“Each church must follow their own leadership about worship services,” Return America continued. “All churches must use extreme caution to assure the safety of each member.”
“Please do not go back in a manner which would hazard the lives of anyone.”
“Finally, we would ask that each one be thankful for this verdict and much in prayer for all involved that the final verdict will allow a continuation of our First Amendment rights.”
Praise God for His intervention in this case, and keep praying for the churches in North Carolina!
May Governor Cooper (and all our leaders) recognize the importance of religious freedom in these unusual times.