In-person religious gatherings begin to resume amid legal fights, public pressure
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May 21, 2020 (LifeSiteNews) – Americans in some parts of the country are regaining their freedom to gather in person for worshipping with fellow believers, as legal challenges to state lockdown orders make their way through the courts and the public’s impatience with restrictions on normal life tests their limit.
North Carolina Democrat Gov. Roy Cooper had suspended various in-person gatherings of more than 10 people, as part of his stay-at-home order to curb the spread of COVID-19, and specifically cited churches as places where “the virus can spread so much more easily,” because “people gather together and are around each other for a long time.”
Federal Judge James C. Denver III blocked the order, the News & Observer reported, noting that the 10-person limit seemed to be selectively applied.
“The record, at this admittedly early stage of the case, reveals that the governor appears to trust citizens to perform non-religious activities indoors (such as shopping or working or selling merchandise) but does not trust them to do the same when they worship together indoors,” the judge wrote in his ruling.
“The court trusts worshippers and their leaders to look after one another and society while exercising their free exercise rights just as they and their fellow citizens (whether religious or not) do when engaged in non-religious activities,” the ruling continued.
Denver’s ruling is not the last word on the state’s lockdown order; a hearing on its legal merits is set for May 29. In the meantime, however, Cooper will not be appealing, meaning that North Carolina worshippers will be free to gather for at least the next week.
Churches and other places of worship may hold one in-person service per week, for just a single hour, limited to 30 percent of the building’s maximum occupancy. Social distancing between members of different households is mandatory, choirs are still forbidden, and attendees must somehow stagger their arrival time.
Masks are also mandatory and “exchange of materials of any kind” – such as hymn books, Holy Communion – “is strongly discouraged,” and donations should be collected with a stationary box rather than passing around a basket.
In Oregon, Baker County Circuit Judge Matthew B. Shirtcliff sided with churches in ruling that Democrat Gov. Kate Brown’s lockdown orders were invalid for exceeding a 28-day limit enacted by the state legislature. However, Brown appealed to the Oregon Supreme Court, which allowed the lockdown to temporarily continue, Oregon Live reported. A date has not yet been set for the court to consider the matter on the merits.
"The governor’s orders are not required for public safety when plaintiffs can continue to utilize social distancing and safety protocols at larger gatherings involving spiritual worship,'' Shirtcliff had determined. “Plaintiffs have shown that they will be harmed by deprivation of the constitutional right to freely exercise their religion. Other plaintiffs have also shown great economic harm to their businesses and their ability to seek livelihood.”
State Supreme Court Presiding Justice Thomas A. Balmer’s ruling announcing the hold on Shirtcliff’s ruling did not delve into the reasoning behind the court’s decision.
Before the Supreme Court reversed it, Oregon Republican Party Chairman Bill Currier had called Shirtcliff’s decision a “powerful reminder that Governor Brown, whatever her intentions, is not a ruler who can ignore Oregon’s Constitution and laws.”
As of May 21, the United States is estimated to have seen more than 1.6 million COVID-19 cases, with more than 95,000 deaths and 373,000 recoveries. An estimated 40 percent of those deaths have come from nursing homes (with the percentages for specific states often much higher), and mounting evidence suggests far more of the public has contracted and recovered from the virus than the official count indicates.
At the same time, state bans on “non-essential” activity across the country have caused massive job losses, with more than 33 million Americans filing for unemployment and studies predicting that tens of thousands of small businesses that have closed down will never reopen.
The suppression of religious exercise has been one of the focal points for resistance to the COVID-19 lockdowns across the country, along with prohibitions on peaceful protesting outdoors, even when the protestors abide by “social distancing.”