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A federal judge on Saturday ruled that Gov. Janet Mills’ prohibition on in-person worship services does not violate the First Amendment.
Calvary Chapel in Orrington and its pastor, Ken Graves, sued the governor in U.S. District Court in Bangor. The lawsuit alleged that Mills’ order violated the freedom of religion and assembly clauses of the First Amendment and other laws designed to protect houses of worship.
It sought 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.
U.S. District Judge Nancy Torresen in her 23-page ruling found, as have the vast majority of federal judges who ruled in similar cases, that prohibiting in-person worship services was in the public interest due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Religious gatherings, on the other hand, are more akin to restaurants, entertainment venues, movie theaters, and schools, all of which face the same restrictions as [Calvary Chapel],” the judge said.
Attorneys for the church argued that the religious activities were as essential as shopping but
Torresen said that she agreed with other courts that distinguished houses of worship from retail activities. Attorneys for the state said that the ban was constitutional because it allowed drive-in and online services and did not ban all worship services.
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“Several other courts have distinguished churches from places where individuals shop, noting that the purpose of shopping — unlike the purpose of community-centered religious organizations — is not to congregate and converse but instead to find and purchase items with limited contact with others,” Torresen said.
The judge found that granting the motion for a temporary restraining order was not in the public interest.
“The state is managing an extraordinary array of issues, and it has responded to the challenges
raised by COVID-19 by establishing uniform standards and restrictions that are based on evolving scientific evidence,” Torresen said. “Gov. Mills has laid out a path for organizations to seek to ease restrictions. Upsetting the careful balance being drawn by Maine’s governor at this time would have an adverse effect on the public interest.”
Torresen has been a federal judge since 2011. She was nominated by President Barack Obama, a Democrat. Her colleague, U.S. District Judge Lance Walker, is handling the lawsuit filed Friday against Mills by small business owners. He has been on the bench since 2018. Walker was nominated by Republican President Donald Trump.
It was unclear Saturday whether Torresen’s ruling would impact the business owner’s lawsuit since it did not make any First Amendment claims.
Graves has said the church will hold three services outside on Sunday. One will be a drive-in service, where people will remain in their vehicles. At the other two, chairs will be placed outside and families may sit together but groups must follow social distancing guidelines or remain in their cars and trucks.
The pastor has said he expects the case, ultimately, will be decided by the U.S. Supreme Court. The church’s attorneys filed a notice that it will appeal Torresen’s decision to the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston about 40 minutes after it was issued.
“We strongly believe the decision to deny the TRO is neither supported by the law nor by the facts, some of which the court got wrong,” the church’s attorney, Mathew Staver, said. “Maine currently does not permit any in-person services because there is no mechanism in place to ‘approve’ a church to have a religious gathering. … Churches and religious gatherings are not treated equally to non-religious gatherings, and therein lies the constitutional violation. Moreover, the governor has no authority to dictate the form and manner of worship for all churches.”
The Maine Attorney’s General’s office, which represents Mills, did not immediately return a request for comment.
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.
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