Federal Judge Issues TRO on NC Church Gathering Limits: 'There Is No Pandemic Exception to the Constitution'

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Yesterday I wrote about a faith-based group and several local churches filing a lawsuit Thursday against North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper (D) , objecting to the strict limit on indoor church gatherings as outlined in the governor’s “phase one” reopening plan, which started Friday May 8th.

Judge James Dever III sent signals Friday that he would side with the plaintiffs in the case. One of the questions he asked at the time was “Why doesn’t the governor trust the leaders and members of religious entities in the same way he trusts, seemingly, everyone else?”

Today, Judge Dever decided to grant the plaintiffs a temporary restraining order that will be in effect for at least 14 days:

A federal judge issued a temporary restraining order preventing the enforcement of Gov. Roy Cooper’s executive orders that restrict church worship in North Carolina. A group founded by pastors and churches sued Cooper over his executive orders alleging they violate the U.S. and N.C. constitutions.

U.S. District Court Judge James C. Dever heard arguments on Friday from a group of plaintiffs who challenged Cooper’s authority to restrict religious activities. Saturday, the judge said the plaintiffs 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.”

The judge said unequivocally that “There is no pandemic exception to the Constitution of the United States or the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment.”

The judge did note in his ruling that church gatherers should still follow the governor’s guidelines on social distancing:

You can read the full ruling here.

The governor’s office issued a statement noting they were disappointed but would not appeal:

Seeing as though a growing number of county sheriffs, police chiefs, and even district attorneys were already lining up to state they would not be arresting/prosecuting people for going to church (and/or for trying to reopen their businesses), it’s not a surprise the governor is backing off at least until the full court case is heard, which will be on May 29th.

Phase one of the “reopening” plan allows for unlimited outdoor church gatherings provided social distancing guidelines are observed, but indoor worship services were limited to 10 people. The plaintiffs took issue with the limits on Constitutional grounds, and also because they were stricter than limits on secular gatherings.

Flashback –>> NC Governor Gives Troubling Answer on Church Gatherings, Encourages Counties to Be More Restrictive If Needed