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An evangelical church in Orrington is challenging Gov. Janet Mills’ prohibition on in-person worship services, alleging it violates the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
Calvary Chapel late Tuesday filed the 45-page complaint in U.S. District Court in Bangor. It was made public Wednesday and seeks a temporary restraining order to keep law enforcement from charging Pastor Ken Graves or members of his congregation with a crime for violating the governor’s prohibition on gatherings of 10 people or more.
The lawsuit is the first court challenge to Mills’ orders imposed to curb the spread of COVID-19.
A similar lawsuit was successful in federal court in Kansas. The judge in that case allowed the two churches that are plaintiffs to hold in-person services but did not extend the exception to the entire state.
The lawsuit alleges that Mills’ order violates the freedom of religion and assembly clauses of the First Amendment and other laws designed to protect houses of worship.
“Calvary Chapel brings this case to restrain the troubling transgression of its fundamental and cherished liberties wrought by the imposition of Gov. Mills’ orders surrounding COVID-19,” the complaint reads. “Calvary Chapel seeks not to discredit or discard the government’s unquestionable interest in doing that task for which it was instituted — protecting the citizenry.
“But, as is often true in times of crisis, Calvary Chapel respectfully submits that in an effort to uphold her sworn duties Gov. Mills has stepped over a line the Constitution does not permit,” it said. “Because of that, Calvary Chapel brings this action to ensure that this court safeguards the cherished liberties for which so many have fought and died.”
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Mills, a former attorney general, declined to comment on the lawsuit when asked about it at a press conference Wednesday afternoon. The governor said she was aware of it.
“Faith and worship are extremely important during these times,” Mills said, adding that she takes part in her church’s worship services online.
The governor also quoted the Maine Council of Churches, which praised Mills’ efforts during the pandemic in a letter posted Friday on its website.
“In keeping with your directives and guidance, we call on Maine’s churches and the clergy who serve them to practice restraint, patience and a spirit of sacrifice as we discern a way forward through the coming months,” it said.
The organization, made up of mainline Protestant denominations urged churches to “willingly refrain from in-person worship gatherings,” including drive-in services.
“Do this as an embodiment of the love you have for neighbor and self,” the council urged. “Do this as a faithful response to the biblical mandate to protect the most vulnerable, the marginalized, the weak and defenseless”.
Maine Attorney General Aaron Frey, whose office will defend Mills, said the orders were designed to protect the public’s health.
“The executive orders at issue in this lawsuit were carefully crafted in order to protect Mainers’ health during the COVID-19 pandemic,” Frey said. “We will represent the governor and will vigorously defend the constitutionality of the challenged executive orders and the governor’s authority to protect public health.”
Graves announced Sunday at a drive-in service for worshippers that the church would be a plaintiff in the lawsuit. He also announced that two Sunday services on Mother’s Day would be held inside the church and one drive-in service would be held in the parking lot.
The pastor said he would open the doors of the church as an act of civil disobedience. The Maine State Police has said it would charge those who violate the governor’s gathering order with a Class E crime, punishable by up to six months in jail and a fine of up to $1,000.
Mills said Wednesday that many local law enforcement agencies have been handling violations in the spirit of community police — warning people they could be charged and asking them to change their behavior rather than issuing summonses.
As for being able to keep worshippers safe from exposure to the virus during in-person services, the lawsuit claims that Calvary Chapel is large enough — 10,00 square feet — to comply with the U.S. and Maine Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommendations and social distancing guidelines.
“Calvary Chapel can and would practice stringent social distancing and personal hygiene protocols, including extensive and enhanced sanitizing of common surfaces in Calvary Chapel’s building prior to the service, and requiring attendees to remain at least 6 feet apart and use hand sanitizer prior to entering and during movement inside Calvary Chapel’s building,: the complaint said.
The lawsuit also takes issue with Mills’ refusal to consider worship services essential as other governors have done. In New England, Connecticut Gov. Ned Lamont permitted religious services to continue, but limited in-person gatherings to 50.
It was unclear Wednesday whether U.S. District Judge Nancy Torresen, who is handling the case, would be able to issue an order before Sunday. Federal courts in Maine are holding all hearings remotely. As of 4 p.m. Wednesday, she had not yet scheduled oral arguments.
If the judge were to grant the temporary order, it would only apply to Calvary Chapel. Any permanent injunction issued would apply to all houses of worship in the state.
The lawsuit is being handled by 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.
The Orrington 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 Bangor in the early 1990s.
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.
Watch: Janet Mills outlines her plan to reopen