On Saturday, May 16, 2020, Federal court Judge James C. Dever III in the Eastern District of NC issued issued a temporary order on Executive Order 138 regarding church gatherings, in effect temporarily reversing Governor Roy Cooper’s Executive Order 138 about limiting the size of church gatherings. The order extends for two weeks from May 16th.
This decision came after Berean Baptist Church (of Winston-Salem), Return America, Inc., Dr. Ronnie Baity, and People’s Baptist Church, Inc., (Greenville, NC) sued Gov. Cooper in his official capacity. In their suit, the plaintiffs contended that Executive Order 138 concerning COVID-19 and a general requirement that all worship services involving more than 10 people must be held “outdoors unless impossible” to hold outdoors violates the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment.
Pages 20-21 of the order state the following:
“…At the hearing, plaintiffs asked the court to issue a statewide injunction, and the Governor’s counsel confirmed that the assembly for religious worship provisions in EO 138 apply to all who assemble for religious worship throughout North Carolina. Moreover, the assembly for religious worship provisions in EO 138, by their terms, prohibit not just Berean Baptist or People’s Baptist from holding indoor worship activities with more than ten people, but necessarily prohibit all worshipers in North Carolina from such worship. Stated differently, the scope of the free exercise violation caused by the assembly for religious worship provisions in EO 138 involves every religious activity in North Carolina where more than 10 people gather indoors to worship. See Brinkman, 433 U.S. at 420; Ostergren, 615 F.3d at 288-89. Accordingly, the court issues a statewide injunction.” [emphasis added]
“IV. In sum, the court GRANTS plaintiffs’ emergency motion for a temporary restraining order [D.E. 2]. Defendant, any of his agents, employees, and state or local law enforcement officers are ENJOINED from taking any enforcement action against plaintiffs or any other worshipers pursuant to the assembly for religious worship provisions in EO 138. As set forth in section 6(0) of EO 138, any person or group of people gathering to worship ‘should observe the Recommendations to Promote Social Distancing and Reduce Transmissions to the extent practicable.’ [D.E. 1-6] 12. This order shall remain in place for no longer than 14 days.”
The court has scheduled a hearing on plaintiffs’ motion for a preliminary injunction on Friday, May 29, 2020, at 11:00 a.m. in Courtroom One of the Terry Sanford Federal Building, 310 New Bern Avenue, Raleigh.
Ford Porter, Governor Roy Cooper’s spokesperson, responded to a court ruling Saturday on religious services during COVID-19:
“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.”