By L.A. Williams
Christian Action League
April 24, 2020
As North Carolina’s Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper on Thursday extended his social distancing/stay-at-home order for at least another two weeks, it is clear that he and many Republican lawmakers remain more than six feet apart on the issue of how to treat churches during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I understand churches voluntarily waving their rights temporarily in an emergency to protect public health. But I don’t care who says otherwise, our constitutional rights, even for a pandemic, cannot be suspended. And whenever such questions as to these rights arise, the government must use the least restrictive means possible. I’m not seeing that here,” said the Rev. Mark Creech, executive director of the Christian Action League.
“Churches should not be treated any differently than businesses when it comes to assembling together. Moreover, churches could do many things shy of a complete ban on meetings of more than 10 people to spare suffering and to save life.”
The governor’s announcement included a three-phase plan for easing restrictions with each phase contingent on testing, tracing and data trend goals being met. Houses of worship would be allowed to resume limited-capacity gatherings in Phase 2, which can’t start until at least the end of May or early June.
Richard Mast, senior litigation attorney with Liberty Counsel, hopes the state reopens sooner rather than later.
“We are beginning to see light at the end of the tunnel. Closing businesses and locking down America has resulted in catastrophic damage. These lockdowns are not sustainable. We must begin to open America,” he said.
“Many lockdowns have closed churches at a time of greatest need,” Mast added. “Many of the orders from governors and local officials violate the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. These closures must end.”
Gov. Cooper’s announcement came a week after three Republican senators issued a press release demanding that the Governor be more evenhanded in his treatment of churches.
“Government regulators are targeting churches with different, more restrictive rules than retail businesses. It’s an outrageous overstep of government authority that infringes on basic First Amendment rights,” Senator Warren Daniel (R-Burke) said in the release. “I urge Governor Cooper to intervene and resolve this local government mess immediately and to relax his restrictions to allow the same occupancy standards for churches as he does for retailers.”
The “mess” he referred to was a Wake County ordinance which prohibits churches from “distributing communion,” “handing out literature,” and collecting “tithes and offerings,” while at the same time allows restaurants to distribute food and beverages, and retail stores to accept cash payments.
Sen. Jim Perry (R-Lenoir) said, “I’m hearing from pastors all over my district about their foundational concern over government restrictions treating their churches differently than commercial establishments. I urge Governor Cooper to change these rules, and fast.”
Sen. Danny Britt (R-Robeson) also signed the release, which called out Cooper’s stay-at-home order for a similar double standard: The rules permit businesses to allow shoppers inside as long as they do not exceed 20 percent of fire code capacity, but prohibit churches of identical square footage from hosting more than 10 people.
Some local ordinances, including Wake County’s, forbid even drive-in church services, a practice that the governor has confirmed is not prohibited by his order. Earlier this month in a letter to the North Carolina Sheriffs Association and the North Carolina Association of Chiefs of Police, Cooper said such gatherings “appear to be acceptable as long as individuals remain in their vehicles and avoid contact.”
“I have been working in the background on this issue for some time now, and I believe it helped contribute to clarification from the Governor’s office to allow drive-in services,” the Rev. Creech said. “Furthermore, I’ve been contacting lawmakers about these discrepancies of treatment by the Governor’s order. They have assured me they are doing everything within their power to point out the problem to the Governor, but he isn’t responding.”
Creech said one lawmaker sent him an email, saying, “Please understand this is all on the Governor. He has not listened to any recommendations that the General Assembly has made.”
After Cooper’s announcement today, Sen. Phil Berger (R-Rockingham) lamented that many small businesses will be bankrupt by the time the Governor allows them to reopen as part of phase two.
Even so, Berger said he appreciated Cooper providing more details regarding his plan and the current COVID situation in North Carolina. He said lawmakers still want to know about Department of Health and Human Services models and need more data.
“Collaboration and transparency will yield better results than command-and-control. Hopefully, today marks a transition,” Berger added.
Tar Heel churches aren’t the only ministries that have been seemingly targeted by authorities. A lawsuit has been filed on behalf of a harassed Mississippi church. And the wrongful arrests of prayer walkers at abortion clinics have also spurred legal action.
President Donald Trump said last weekend that the Christian faith is being “treated very unfairly” during the pandemic.