Courts are still handing out mixed results to churches that challenge restrictions on worship services during the coronavirus pandemic, even as some states like Virginia, Alabama, and Louisiana begin loosening their rules.
In Louisiana, U.S. District Judge Brian A. Jackson upheld Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards’ order limiting indoor church services to 10 people. Mark Anthony Spell, the pastor of Life Tabernacle Church in Baton Rouge, claimed that his church’s religious beliefs required their 2,000 members to worship together. When he continued to hold services in violation of the governor’s restrictions, the state issued a misdemeanor summons for his arrest, but authorities did not take him into custody. Edwards then relaxed the restrictions to allow indoor services at 25 percent of a building’s capacity.
Churches in Illinois, however, have gotten no relief. Elim Pentecostal Church in Chicago lost its bid to block enforcement of Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s 10-person limit on worship services. U.S. District Judge Robert Gettleman said there was no evidence the governor’s order targeted religion and found the virus is more likely to spread in a church environment than at a business. The church appealed the ruling.
But a federal judge in North Carolina criticized that reasoning. U.S. District Judge James C. Dever III set aside Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper’s similar restriction on indoor services. “Why doesn’t the governor trust the leaders and members of religious entities in the same way he trusts, seemingly, everyone else?” Dever asked the governor’s counsel at a hearing on Friday.
In the order that followed on Saturday, the judge barred enforcement of the gathering ban, citing “glaring inconsistencies” in the order’s treatment of religious and non-religious entities.
“Eleven men and women can stand side by side working indoors Monday through Friday at a hospital, at a plant, or at a package distribution center and be trusted to follow social distancing and hygiene guidance, but those same 11 men and women cannot be trusted to do the same when they worship inside together on Saturday or Sunday,” Dever wrote.
Cooper’s office said he would not appeal the judge’s ruling.
In Oregon, the state Supreme Court ruled Monday night in a suit brought by 10 churches that Democratic Gov. Kate Brown’s restrictions on churches as well as all of her coronavirus emergency orders were on hold because she exceeded a 28-day limit on such restrictions set by state lawmakers. —S.W.