A federal judge has blocked the North Carolina governor’s order limiting most church services to 10 people or fewer, saying it was a double standard to limit religious services but not similar activities under anti-coronavirus restrictions.
For his part, Gov. Roy Cooper said different rules were justified because religious services posed greater dangers of spreading the novel coronavirus.
U.S. District Judge James C. Dever III issued a temporary restraining order that allows indoor religious services to take place for two weeks, the Raleigh News-Observer reports.
The judge said the governor’s 10-person standard does not apply to businesses, which are limited to 50% capacity, or to funeral services, which up to 50 people may attend.
“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 said.
He said Gov. Cooper “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.”
A May 29 hearing will determine whether the order will become permanent. The restraining order blocks enforcement but said religious congregants should follow social distancing recommendations to reduce the transmission of the Covid-19 virus.
Cooper’s office said he would not appeal the ruling, which followed a lawsuit from two Baptist churches, a minister and a Christian revival group. The lawsuit charged that the governor’s order was a virtual ban on religious assembly and infringed on the free exercise of religion.
Cooper had defended the order against objections that groups of people were allowed at retail stores and not churches.
“We know that inside, it is much more likely that you’re going to transmit this virus, particularly when you’re sitting or standing in one place for a long time,” he said, according to the Raleigh News-Observer. He added “I miss in-person church services very much myself.”
Cooper’s executive order aimed to launch the first phase of lifting some limits on social and economic life that had sought to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. His order allowed church services under social distance conditions, with 10 or fewer people in attendance. It suggested churches offer multiple services. The order said these services shall take place outside “unless impossible.”
Republican state senators objected to the Democratic governor’s phrasing and some county sheriffs said they would not enforce the order. Cooper’s order tried to accommodate religious differences, saying that religious services may occupy at full capacity if the religion’s rules require indoor meetings of more than 10 people in the same room.
Some churches in the U.S. and South Korea are believed to be at the center of so-called “super-spreader” events, when numerous infections from the novel coronavirus result. It is possible that activities like singing can spread the virus. On May 12, the Centers for Disease Control said 53 of 61 choir members who took part in a March 10 choir practice at a church in Skagit County, Washington contracted a confirmed or probable case of the coronavirus. Three singers were hospitalized and two died, E.W. Scripps News reports.
Steve Grice, pastor of New Life Baptist Church in Raleigh, had decided to hold services even before the order blocking enforcement, the Raleigh News-Observer reported. He said there are too many distractions when services are held outside in the church parking lot, such as cars turning around in the gravel driveway and a loud ATV driving by repeatedly.
“I felt strongly that we could do this safely,” he said. The church’s precautions included providing hand sanitizer and masks on a back table. Most of the 25 attendees at a May 17 Sunday service sat six feet apart, excepting family and friends. Grice hired two deputies for the service, fearing disruption after the event attracted attention on Facebook.
Raleigh’s Holy Name of Jesus Catholic Cathedral and other churches followed the previous guidelines of the governor’s order. The cathedral held Mass outside. Many attendees wore masks, WTVD News reports.
“Today’s Catholic parish mass was planned before Saturday’s information about the availability of indoor masses. The monsignor said leaders will study possible next steps, but nothing’s been announced,” a cathedral spokesperson said.
The Diocese of Raleigh referred CNA to a May 7 letter and guidelines from Bishop Luis Rafael Zarama. It allows Mass in “an unenclosed space” if the faithful follow social distancing guidelines. Each pastor should instruct the faithful on these guidelines. It limits daily Mass to 10 persons.
Jim Whitfield, pastor of Triangle Christian Center in Raleigh, supported churches re-opening.
“I think it’s about time,” he told WTVD News.
About 100 people attended services at his church, with no social distancing. Most people did not wear masks.
Whitfield said he thinks the congregants are safe.
“And in our daycare we’ve not had one infection in the whole period of time, and right up front we were declared essential,” he added.