Orders levied by Democratic governors in Maine and California are being challenged by nondenominational churches represented and assisted by a leading Christian legal group. Those orders essentially assign churches second-class status during the coronavirus pandemic by prohibiting religious gatherings – including (in the Maine case) parking lot services.
Liberty Counsel filed a reply brief last week to the First U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on behalf of Calvary Chapel of Bangor as it appeals its lawsuit, alleging that Governor Janet Mills (D-Maine) unconstitutionally targeted churches with her COVID-19 order, which essentially renders them unable to function.
"Under the orders, the church can hold secular, but not religious meetings," Liberty Counsel states in a press release. "The church can feed, shelter and provide social services to an unlimited number of people, but religious services are severely limited in the same building where non-religious services can be held."
Church lockdowns based on thin air …
Even though the effectiveness of lockdowns has been speculative, at best, the legal group contends Mills has essentially assumed the position of self-proclaimed pandemic expert by giving herself the authority to judge whether, when and how churches can function.
"Governor Mills said that churches will only be allowed to meet in small numbers when she is satisfied with the 'metrics,' and when that happens, she will require churches to apply to reopen," the nonprofit legal firm points out. "Approved churches would then need to display a 'badge' at the front door, signifying they are approved to open."
Liberty Counsel points out that Mills has no process in place to begin the approval process and no application for the churches. "Even the notion that churches would have to apply to reopen and display a 'badge' signifying approval is offensive to the First Amendment," adds the group's press release.
Marijuana dispensaries, liquor stores and warehouse clubs – along with "big box" stores and "supercenter" retailers – have been designated by the governor as "essential" commercial and non-religious entities. Therefore, they are allowed to accommodate gatherings of people, even in their parking areas, without being threatened with criminal sanctions.
In contrast, churches in Maine have no such status and face the threat of criminal sanctions if they open their doors or gather in the parking lot to listen to their pastor.
"The First Amendment does not have a pandemic pause button," contends Mat Staver, founder and chairman of Liberty Counsel. "Churches are even more essential during this time when people need the community and spiritual support that only churches offer.
"Houses of worship have special protections under the First Amendment," he concludes, "and Governor Mills cannot favor commercial businesses while relegating churches to second-class status."
California also trying to handcuff congregants
Liberty Counsel also is seeking a temporary restraining order and preliminary injunction by filing a reply memorandum of law in federal court – on behalf of Harvest Rock Church and Harvest International Ministry – in order to stop California Governor Gavin Newsom from imposing restrictions on virtually every aspect of Christians' lives in the Golden State.
And in yet another challenge to Newsom's "no singing and nor worship orders," Godspeak Calvary Chapel Church in Ventura, CA, was issued a temporary restraining order last week by a Ventura County state judge – to keep its congregants from meeting. But Pastor Rob McCoy's church still met, drawing approximately 2,500 people.