By L.A. Williams
Christian Action League
May 14, 2020
Just unclear or totally unfair?
More than a week after Roy Cooper signed an order designed to begin easing COVID-19 restrictions and days after he released a second written statement offering further “guidance for religious services,” many church and civic leaders across North Carolina are still unsure of the governor’s intent.
The question of whether churches can legally hold in-person, indoor services with 10 or more people appears not to have a simple answer.
“In situations where it is not possible to conduct worship services outdoors or through other accommodations — such as through, for example, a series of indoor services of ten or fewer attendees, or through online services — the ten-person attendance limit on indoor worship services does not apply,” the Governor’s Office said in its May 12 explanation of his May 5 order. “For example, there may be situations in which particular religious beliefs dictate that some or all of a religious service must be held indoors and that more than ten persons must be in attendance.”
The statement, which goes on to say that while indoors participants should adhere to social distancing recommendations, was issued after North Carolina’s two largest law enforcement organizations, a group of Senate Republicans and the Christian Action League wrote letters to Cooper seeking clarification and more equitable treatment for churches.
“Quite frankly, the order (Executive Order 138) is remarkably confusing… It leaves the churches having to hazard a guess about the way to carry on. Furthermore, it singles out churches for different treatment. If businesses are permitted to currently open their doors to 50 percent capacity when implementing social distancing and other health precautions, why can’t churches be trusted to do likewise?” wrote the Rev. Mark Creech, the CAL’s executive director.
He warned that if the governor did not clarify the order “in a manner that does not single out churches for different treatment by May 22,” the CAL would call for mass civil disobedience and urge churches to reopen, exercising the same privileges afforded to businesses.
“The sacred right to worship whenever and wherever we choose existed long before government,” Creech wrote. “It is an inalienable right, a God-given right, and supersedes any dictates the government may issue.”
After seeing Cooper’s response, Creech said it’s apparent that without rescinding his order, the Governor appears to be creating a loophole so that church leaders can sidestep the mass gathering prohibition by presenting any number of religiously-based reasons why they can’t meet outside.
“Presumably, it appears that no law enforcement officer is going to second-guess such a decision by church leadership and arrest pastors and others for meeting inside for worship,” he says.
David Hess, president of the North Carolina Association of Chiefs of Police, called Cooper’s May 5 order “illogical and unfair” in a May 10 letter asking him for a better explanation of the rules.
“Law enforcement is directed to enforce this Executive Order, which entails interpreting and explaining it to citizens in order to gain voluntary compliance…” wrote Hess. “The dictates of Executive Order 138 relating to worship services cannot be explained or justified to our citizens, and attempted enforcement engenders disrespect and lack of trust in law enforcement and the State.”
He pointed out that under the order, retail businesses can operate every day for unlimited hours under more liberal rules than those applied to brief worship services.
Similarly, the North Carolina Sheriffs’ Association passed a resolution May 8 telling the governor that “many citizens have told sheriffs that they do not understand nor agree with the Governor’s limits on worship services that are more restrictive than the Governor’s limits on businesses and other allowable activities, and the wording of these more restrictive limitations creates interpretation and enforcement issues for law enforcement.”
The wording of the order was also challenged by Senate Republicans who pointed out in a May 8 letter to Cooper that in section 6(A) of the order he excludes worship services and other activities protected by the First Amendment from the definition of “mass gatherings” but then in Section 6(C) insists that worship services “shall take place outdoors unless impossible.”
“Many faith leaders and other constituents who are eager to resume worship services this Sunday have reached out to our offices with confusion of what conditions make an outdoor worship service ‘impossible.’ Is a worship service impossible in the event of severe weather, light rain, strong wind, heat or cold? Is it impossible if a particular church lacks access to a suitable outdoor space to conduct a worship service for its congregation? Is it impossible to conduct a worship service outside if the audio, visual or other equipment necessary to conduct the service cannot be moved outside or is otherwise at risk of damage if moved outside?” the senators asked.
They felt Cooper’s secondary explanation was still far from adequate.
“By order of the state, an unspecified religious service may operate at full capacity if that religion’s rules require indoor meetings of more than 10 people in the same room, which means the state is deciding which religions may worship freely and which may not,” Sens. Kathy Harrington and Carl Ford wrote in a press release.
“Gov. Cooper’s absurd state order is unconstitutional on two grounds: it treats churches differently than commercial establishments, and it treats some religions differently than others.”
Rev. Creech tried to assure the Governor that people of faith can be trusted to take COVID-19 seriously.
“Governor, let God’s people go. We can do this,” he wrote in his letter. “We can arrange our worship services indoors and also take precautions to protect people’s health as sufficiently, perhaps even better than any business.”
Here’s the full text of the CAL letter to Gov. Cooper.