A federal judge has granted a temporary restraining order that allows North Carolina churches to hold indoor worship services. Saturday's order shoots down Gov. Roy Cooper's executive order that limited only 10 people or less inside for religious services.
U.S. District Judge James Dever III granted a temporary restraining order for the restrictions on indoor church services. The order will allow churches to meet in larger numbers for worship for at least 14 days.
"There is no pandemic exception to the Constitution of the United States or the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment," Dever said. "Plaintiffs have demonstrated that they are likely to succeed on the merits of their Free Exercise claim concerning the assembly for religious worship provisions in Executive Order 138, that they will suffer irreparable harm absent a temporary restraining order, that the equities tip in their favor, and that a temporary restraining order is in the public interest."
"Thus, having considered the entire record and governing law, the court grants plaintiffs' motion for a temporary restraining order," Dever added.
Religious leaders filed a lawsuit on Thursday that argued that Cooper's coronavirus stay-at-home order violates their constitutional rights. The Democratic governor's Phase 1 stipulations for the reopening of North Carolina stated that indoor religious services were limited to 10 people, and they had to follow social distancing guidelines of being at least six feet apart.
Church leaders noted that the executive order allows as many people in the buildings of businesses as long as the number doesn't exceed 50% of the building's fire code capacity. Religious leaders felt the same rules should apply to churches.
"This court does not doubt that the Governor is acting in good faith to lessen the spread of COVID-19 and to protect North Carolinians, but restrictions inexplicably applied to one group and exempted from another do little to further these goals and do much to burden religious freedom," Dever said.
"Gov. Cooper cannot treat retailers and ABC stores one way and houses of worship another," said State Sen. Warren Daniel, co-chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. "Nor can he allow one type of worship service to proceed while prohibiting another. Hopefully, this decision will put some guardrails on what has been unchecked executive power."
Cooper's office released a statement on the ruling, saying they "disagree" with the decision, but will not appeal.
We don't want indoor meetings to become hotspots for the virus and our health experts continue to warn that large groups sitting together inside for long periods of time are much more likely to cause the spread of COVID-19. While our office disagrees with the decision, we will not appeal, but instead urge houses of worship and their leaders to voluntarily follow public health guidance to keep their members safe.
Another hearing is set for the case on May 29 at 11:00 a.m. to decide on whether the order will become permanent or not.
Last week, a federal judge ruled that all Kentucky churches are allowed to hold in-person gatherings as long as congregations adhere to social distancing and other health guidelines from the CDC.