Maine hangs onto strict worship rules
Religious Liberty | A Bangor church continues to press discriminatory treatment claim
by Steve West
Posted 2/19/21, 05:48 pm
Thanks to court rulings, most of the tight restrictions on worship from early in the coronavirus pandemic have fallen: 33 states now have no limits on services at all. But Maine continues to hang on, and a Bangor church is challenging the state’s numerical cap on worship on twin fronts, both in federal district court and the Supreme Court.
On Thursday, Calvary Chapel of Bangor asked U.S. District Judge Nancy Torresen to block Gov. Janet Mills’ 50-person cap on worship attendance. The church on Feb. 11 also asked the Supreme Court to immediately intervene, arguing “irreparable First Amendment injury is felt each day the challenged orders remain in place.”
At the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic in March 2020, Mills issued a public health executive order that effectively banned religious gatherings and imposed criminal penalties of up to six months in jail and a $1,000 fine for violations. The church sued in May. Mills later lifted the tightest restrictions, but a 50-person cap on attendance remained. On Feb. 12, she allowed five people per 1,000 square feet of space, or up to 50 people, whichever is greater.
That’s little comfort to Ken Graves, senior pastor of Calvary Chapel of Bangor. In an affidavit, he recounts the impact of the worship restriction on the church’s residential discipleship program. The one-year, live-in program serves men and women seeking to escape drug and alcohol abuse and other life-controlling issues. Under the new order, the church’s 10,000 square foot facility can only accept 50 people, restricting participants ability to worship with other church members. “Church and worship is far more than a pastor downloading a message to watch on a smart device or computer,” he said. “What makes the Calvary Residential Discipleship program successful is not some secular technique, but Bible studies and in-person worship.”
Bishop Robert Deeley, head of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland, Maine, has also criticized the numerical restrictions as “unacceptable,” and urged the governor to use the percentage model at work in some other states and permit churches to fill to a quarter of capacity.
Earlier this month, the Supreme Court struck down California’s total ban on indoor worship. “The U.S. Supreme Court has already ruled against these worship bans but Governor Janet Mills has continued to discriminate against churches and places of worship,” said Liberty Counsel’s Mat Staver, who represents the Maine church. “The governor’s unconstitutional actions must end.”
Read more Liberties Sign up for the Liberties email
Steve is a legal correspondent for WORLD. He is a graduate of World Journalism Institute, Wake Forest University School of Law, and N.C. State University. He worked for 34 years as a federal prosecutor and is now an attorney in private practice. Steve resides with his wife in Raleigh, N.C. Follow him on Twitter @slntplanet.