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The Orrington church that sued Gov. Janet Mills over restrictions on in-person services is now expected to hold Sunday services outdoors after a federal judge indicated she would rule against the congregation, Pastor Ken Graves told his congregation Thursday.
The church filed the lawsuit Tuesday in U.S. District Court in Bangor. It 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. It seeks a temporary restraining order that would allow Calvary Chapel in-person services beginning Sunday and a permanent injunction to allow all congregations to worship as they did before the shutdown orders were imposed.
“The earliest conference with [U.S. District Judge Nancy Torresen] and lawyers revealed that the judge is opposed to granting us our temporary restraining order,” the pastor said in a posting on the church’s Facebook page. “One of the things that this early conference did reveal is that the grounds on which the state will seek to deny us our right to gather is the limitations currently in effect in relation to people per square footage indoors.”
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Based on limitations applied to big stores, the church would only be able to legally accomodate 15 people inside the 10,000-square-foot church, he said.
Maine Deputy Attorney General Christopher Taub, who represents Mills in the lawsuit, disputed Graves’ understanding of what was said in the telephone conferences between lawyers and the judge held Wednesday.
“That is not an accurate description of what was said,” Taub said. “The judge did not say she is opposed to granting a [temporary restraining order]. Rather, she said that the state is to file a response by the end of [Thursday], and she hopes to make a decision before Sunday.
“And the judge did ask questions about square footage, but [Assistant Attorney General] Sarah [Forster] and I never said that square footage is the basis for denying permission to hold services within the building,” Taub said.
Graves said in a Facebook post that instead of meeting indoors in defiance of Mills’ orders, which he announced Sunday at a parking lot service, the chairs inside the church would be moved outdoors on Mother’s Day Sunday.
“The nice thing about this setup is that it will allow others to sit in their cars and listen and see and still be comfortable and safe,” Graves said.
That still would be an act of civil disobedience because the governor has said that drive-in services now are allowed but people must remain in their vehicles with the windows rolled up, the pastor said. He said the point was for the congregation to be able to worship together and feel that they are in fellowship. Whether that is inside or outside did not really matter.
“I am not standing to die on the hill of our building,” Graves said. “I will gladly die on the hill of our right to gather in our lord’s name.”
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.
Graves said Thursday neither he nor the church have been warned by any law enforcement agency that he or church members could be charged for meeting indoors.
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.