Until yesterday, North Carolina had one of the country’s most religion-accommodating COVID policies. Governor Roy Cooper‘s directive to churches was that worship services involving more than 10 people ought to be held “outdoors unless impossible.” Those last two words already gave clergy tremendous leeway to move services inside if they desired, but it wasn’t good enough for some conservative Christians, who sued.
The plaintiffs, including two local Baptist churches and a group called Free America Inc., charged that Cooper’s executive order 138 violated the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment by not treating religious groups equally to non-religious ones. (You can read the details here.)
Yesterday afternoon, a federal judge, James C. Dever III, agreed. He issued a provisional restraining order that allows congregations to mass-gather — effective immediately.
The judge, a George W. Bush appointee, noted that
“There is no pandemic exception to the Constitution of the United States.”
“[P]laintiffs have established that (1) they are likely to succeed on the merits of their claim that the assembly for religious worship provisions in EO 138 violates their rights under the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment; (2) they are likely to suffer irreparable harm absent a temporary restraining order; (3) the balance of the equities tips in their favor; and (4) a temporary restraining order is in the public interest.”
Just how holding a church service outside on a nice day would cause “irreparable harm” to the faithful, I can’t quite understand. (The average temperature in North Carolina in May is a balmy 78ºF.)
More importantly, whose “public interest” is served here? Certainly not the interest of the millions who place greater value on their lives than on letting religious windbags live out their persecution fantasies without restraint.
Dever’s restraining order will remain in place for 14 days. The court is expected to make a final decision on the lawfulness or Governor Cooper’s public-health measure on or shortly after May 29.
(Screenshot via YouTube)