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Federal Judge Weighs Delaware's Coronavirus Restrictions on Churches

Gov. Carney in March ordered that worship services be limited to no more than 10 people, a restriction he did not impose at that time on more than 230 other business and industry entities deemed “essential"

Historic St Peter's Episcopal Church
John Greim

A federal judge is weighing whether to issue a restraining order to prohibit Delaware’s governor from imposing limitations on worship services because of the coronavirus.

After a telephone hearing lasting hours Thursday, U.S. District Court Judge Colm Connolly indicated that he would issue a ruling Friday after receiving more information from state attorneys about Democratic Gov. John Carney’s restrictions.

The Rev. Dr. Christopher Allan Bullock, a well-known Wilmington pastor and community activist, claimed that Carney’s restrictions on worship services are unconstitutional and discriminatory.

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Attorneys for Bullock asked Connolly to allow Bullock to hold church services this Sunday, which is Pentecost Sunday in the Christian church, without the limitations mandated by the governor.

Carney in March ordered that worship services be limited to no more than 10 people, a restriction he did not impose at that time on more than 230 other business and industry entities deemed “essential.”

Amid increasing criticism, Carney issued a revised emergency declaration last week allowing churches to choose between abiding by the 10-person limit or allowing attendance of up to 30% of stated fire occupancy — but only if they complied with several conditions dictating how worship services could be held.

Those conditions included requiring the use of face masks and gloves and banning person-to-person communion, physical contact during baptisms, and prohibiting the use of choirs, handheld microphones and holy water receptacles. Churches also were told to deny entry to anyone 65 or older.

After Bullock filed his lawsuit last week, Carney withdrew some of the restrictions and revised others. The current limitations include requiring worship leaders and singers to wear masks or face shields when speaking or singing. If they are unable to do so, the state suggests, they should turn their backs to the congregation.

“I think the state’s saying that the mask has to be worn unless you turn 180 degrees around and turn your back to the people and preach to the wall,” said Tom Neuberger, an attorney for Bullock.

Deputy attorney general Allison McCowan noted that a preacher who did not want to wear a face mask when delivering his sermon also has the option of increasing the distance between himself and the congregation beyond the state’s six-foot rule.

Under questioning from Connolly, McCowan acknowledged that the state has issued specific guidance that applies only to communities of worship, but she noted that some of those guidelines also apply more generally to secular entities.

In addition to the wearing of masks by worship leaders, state officials have issued directives on the preparation and distribution of blessed food or drink. They also say a pastor should not hold a candidate for baptism and that ushers should not pass around collection plates.

“We’re talking about government interference in the actual design and operation of the worship service,” Neuberger said, adding that such interference is clearly unconstitutional. A restraining order is needed so that houses of worship do not continue to be treated differently from secular entities, he said.

While acknowledging that the case raises important issues that need to be addressed, the judge expressed frustration about being asked to rule with only a few days notice on a restraining order.

“These are weighty, weighty issues, and on both sides,” Connolly said. “You’ve got one of the most fundamental rights embedded in our Constitution, the right of free exercise of a person’s religion. You’ve also got an unprecedented pandemic that affects that health and welfare of every person in our state.”

“The right to exercise religion and to prevent the state from establishing a religion are fundamental. You don’t get any more fundamental,” Connolly added. “They’re so important that it concerns me that I have to opine on them under hurried circumstances.”

Neuberger noted that he filed the lawsuit only after he sent a letter to Carney more than two weeks ago telling him his restrictions were unconstitutional and offering to help draft constitutional regulations.

“We were just stiff-armed on that,” he said, adding that Carney instead issued new regulations on worship services that led to the filing of the lawsuit.

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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