RALEIGH (FOX Carolina) - A federal judge in the Eastern District of North Carolina has granted a temporary restraining order, preventing law enforcement in the state from charging churchgoers with a misdemeanor for attending indoor church services of more than 10 attendees.
In the order handed down Saturday by judge James C. Dever III, Winston-Salem church Berean Baptist Church and its fellow plaintiffs Return America, Inc. and People's Baptist Church, Inc. were handed a victory against governor Roy Cooper, who in previous executive orders barred churches from hosting indoor gatherings of more than 10 people amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. Outdoor gatherings were still allowed, but Dr. Ronnie Baity, the pastor of Berean Baptist Church, accused the governor of targeting religious gatherings and not secular ones.
Churches that broke from this under Executive Order 138 could have seen participants facing a Class 2 misdemeanor, per Dever's ruling, and would have been charged by a local law enforcement agency.
Dever's ruling notes the 1st Amendment did not include specific clauses for health crises, such as the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. While Dever did side with the church and its fellow plaintiffs, he asked them to practice social distancing, which the plaintiffs did agree to follow. Dever did also note "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," a nod to the complexities of facing the ongoing pandemic.
As part of their claim against Cooper, Berean Baptist Church says barring physical assembly in a church building prevents them from a "God-commanded part of their worship".
Dever also mentioned that 15 other governors in the country provided exemptions for religious gatherings from attendance limitations. Dever says " The Governor has failed to cite any peer-reviewed study showing that religious interactions in those 15 states have accelerated the spread of COVID-19 in any manner distinguishable from non- religious interactions. Likewise, common sense suggests that religious leaders and worshipers (whether inside or outside North Carolina) have every incentive to behave safely and responsibly whether working indoors, shopping indoors, or worshiping indoors."
Gov. Cooper responded on Twitter, saying while he disagrees with the ruling, his office will not fight it further.
Statement from Gov. Cooper's spokesperson on today’s court ruling on religious services: pic.twitter.com/A7ynOF9ekl— Governor Roy Cooper (@NC_Governor) May 16, 2020
"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 publice health guidance to keep their members safe," the statement reads.
Another hearing on the case is set for May 29 at 11 a.m.