RALEIGH — Conservative Christian leaders sued North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper on Thursday to get thrown out his latest restrictions on indoor religious services during the COVID-19 pandemic. They argue the limits, initiated by Cooper with health in mind, violate their rights to worship freely.
Two Baptist churches, a minister and a Christian revival group filed the federal lawsuit to immediately block enforcement of rules covering religious services within the Democratic governor's executive order easing stay-at-home rules. The order largely prevents most faith organizations from holding indoor services attended by more than 10 people.
Cooper’s office said the order stating permitted services may “take place outdoors unless impossible” carries only a narrow exception, such as when religious activities dictate they occur indoors with more people.
Those backing the lawsuit said the restrictions violate the First Amendment and treat churches differently from retailers and other secular activities. Under the first step of Cooper’s three-phase plan for reopening now underway, most businesses can open doors provided the number of people indoors doesn’t exceed 50% of the building’s fire code capacity and that social distancing occurs.
“Freedoms crushed eventually become no freedoms at all,” the Rev. Ron Baity, pastor of Berean Baptist Church in Winston-Salem, said at a rally of about 500 people next to the Legislative Building. Baity, who is a plaintiff along with Berean Baptist and the Return America group he leads, said the church building has been an integral part of U.S. history for centuries: ”If there’s ever been a time that our communities need the church, it is now.”
Cooper didn't immediately respond to an email seeking comment on the lawsuit. He and his health department secretary have said they are mindful of religious liberty concerns but that churches and retailers are different: while store patrons walk up and down aisles, churchgoers usually sit down for long periods of time, which make them more susceptible to spread or catch the new coronavirus.
North Carolina health officials reported more than 16,500 people have tested positive for COVID-19 as of Thursday morning, with 615 related deaths. The overall number of tests continues to increase more rapidly, now reaching over 219,000.
Cooper scheduled a public briefing later Thursday to discuss the case and testing trends since the first phase took effect May 8. Cooper has said the second phase could allow for more church gatherings and the limited opening of restaurants, barbershops and salons and gyms. Restaurants can still offer drive-in food.
Over the last two months, many churches have been holding online services, virtual Bible studies or unusual in-person options to comply with his rules. Based on Cooper’s latest order, Bailey's Grove Baptist Church in Asheboro held an outdoor service last Sunday with about half of the regular weekly crowd sitting in chairs adequately separated in the parking lot, said the Rev. Jon Shook, the Bailey's Grove pastor. Shook said churches can certainly meet sanitation standards of businesses that remain open.
“If a 16-year-old gives out a hamburger at McDonald's and is qualified to give me a Happy Meal, then a pastor can certainly have the wisdom and direction to give out the Lord's Supper in safe manner,” Shook said.
The lawsuit marks the latest dust-up among conservatives and Republican elected officials who are unhappy with the pace of Cooper’s reopening when compared to other Southeastern states. One of Cooper’s loudest critics is Lt. Gov. Dan Forest, who is challenging him in the fall election.
Senate leader Phil Berger asked Cooper this week to give county governments the power to let restaurants, hair salons and barbers reopen now. Other legislative Republicans have filed bills attempting to keep Cooper's emergency powers in check.
Cooper has said repeatedly that his decisions on limiting movements, commerce and large gatherings are based on health data and science that his administration is receiving.