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The pastor of an Orrington church announced Sunday that next week he will open the doors of Calvary Chapel to in-person worship in defiance of an order issued by Gov. Janet Mills to curb the spread of the coronavirus.
Ken Graves also said during a drive-in worship service in the church parking lot that the evangelical congregation would be the lead plaintiff in a federal lawsuit — expected to be filed by the end of the week — challenging the constitutionality of Mills’ executive order that has shuttered houses of worship throughout Maine and limited gatherings to 10 people.
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Although Mills announced a four-stage reopening plan last week, it kept in place the ban on in-person worship services but allowed drive-in services in parking lots. Calvary Chapel, located on Route 15, has been doing that for three weeks using a radio transmitter that allows people to hear the service on FM radio while remaining in their cars as Graves speaks from a balcony 15 feet off the ground.
Next Sunday, worshippers will be able to choose from two in-person services and one parking lot service.
By defying the governor’s order, Graves and worshippers could be charged with a Class E crime with penalties of up to six months in jail and a $1,000 fine. So far, just one person appears to have been charged.
Neither the governor’s nor the attorney general’s office immediately returned a request for comment Sunday about how they might respond to in-person worship services.
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Graves said in his sermon Sunday that by not gathering in person, his flock may have been following government guidelines but was not following God’s law.
“I believe that we have been commanded by Jesus to gather together,” he said. “The great commission will not be put on hold.”
The great commission was outlined in Matthew 28, in which Jesus told his disciples: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore, go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”
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Graves told worshippers that in-person worship would follow guidelines set out by the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention. Families would be allowed to sit together but they would be seated at a safe distance from other families and individuals.
“We can spread our congregation out,” he said. “We can do better here than what is being done at the big box stores because we love each other and care for each other.”
The lawsuit, similar to those filed in other states, would allege that the governor’s order shuttering houses of worship violates the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, Graves said. The First Amendment bars Congress from making any laws prohibiting the free exercise of religion.
The lawsuit would be funded by the Liberty Counsel, which has offices in central Florida, Virginia and Washington, D.C., and sponsors litigation related to evangelical Christian values. The Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, Alabama, has listed the organization as anti-LGBTQ hate group.
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In other states, the Liberty Counsel has been successful at getting government officials to reverse decisions that said church services were non-essential. Cases similar to the one to be filed in Maine are pending in Kentucky and Kansas, where a federal judge ruled against that state’s governor’s ban on in-person worship.
“The First Amendment is as applicable during a pandemic, or any other crisis, as it is every other day,” the Liberty Counsel said on its website. “There is no pause button on the Constitution.”
Not all evangelical churches or groups agree with Calvary Chapel’s actions. The Christian Civic League of Maine, a conservative political organization based in Augusta that has worked with the Orrington church on other issues, is not joining the lawsuit, according to Carroll Conley, its executive director.
For now, the league is recommending churches adhere to the governor’s orders.
“The Christian Civic League understands that each congregation and its leadership must decide how it balances the scriptural admonition in Hebrews 10:25, ‘not to forsake the gathering of yourselves’ with the simultaneous teaching in Romans 13:1, ‘being subject to the governing authorities,’” Conley said Sunday. “While some great allies and like-minded ministries are presently calling for civil disobedience, the League, in accordance with legal advice from the Alliance Defending Freedom, recommends voluntary cooperation with the state and federal governments through the month of May working toward the goal of responsible and safe in-person services. We honor and respect those decisions which may differ in timing but not in principle.”
Calvary Chapel bought the former North Orrington School at 154 River Road for $200,000 in December 2001. Built in 1924, the building once housed the community’s kindergarten through fifth-grade pupils.
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The church is a branch of the original Calvary Chapel founded in Costa Mesa, California, by Chuck Smith, who went on to become a leader in the 1970s Jesus Movement.
Graves began preaching in the early 1990s. Rock music also figured heavily in the church’s appeal to young people.
“We got together and started playing heavy rock and preaching Jesus,” said Graves, who once wore long hair, a beard and a black leather jacket with a cross on it.
Watch: Janet Mills outlines her plan to reopen