ORRINGTON, Maine — Members of Calvary Chapel huddled Sunday morning between the church and the children’s building. Families in winter coats and hats with blankets on their laps looked more dressed for a football game than worship Mother’s Day with the temperature in the 40s.
“It is a spiritual necessity, whether our governor thinks so or not,” pastor Ken Graves told the 75 or members of his flock who attended the 11 a.m. service. “It’s a spiritual necessity for us to come together and it is the freedom to do that and the right to do that we stand — that we sit — for here today.”
Technically, Graves and worshippers at the outdoor Sunday services were breaking the law. A federal judge upheld Gov. Janet Mills’ ban on gatherings of more than 10 people in a Saturday decision after Calvary Chapel challenged the state’s coronavirus-related restrictions. The governor has allowed drive-in services, which the chapel held for the previous three weeks.
The pastor said Sunday that although he was not tested, he believes he had the coronavirus in January after a trip to Florida and California. He said his symptoms — cough, extreme fatigue and trouble breathing — were identical to those described by people who have tested positive.
Despite that, Graves said the government has overreacted in shutting down businesses, schools, churches and confining people to their homes, hammering the Democratic governor while addressing his congregation.
“Our energies should be focused on protecting the vulnerable,” he said. “Our government has determined instead to place the whole state under house arrest and has ordered you to become poorer in the name of protecting some.”
The pastor also said he doubted death figures cited for the coronavirus because they make no distinction between those who died with the virus rather than from the virus itself. Experts have said once the pandemic subsides, the data will likely show that the number of deaths reported during the crisis did not include all those who died with it or from it.
Graves urged members of the church to vote. At an 8 a.m. service attended by 200 people, the pastor said he would campaign against Mills if she runs for re-election. Worshipers, none of whom wore masks at the service, reacted to his criticisms with applause and amens.
Garrett Field, 23, of Orrington, came to the service carrying his Bible. Field, who grew up attending the church, said he came for the fellowship.
“I really just missed the assembly,” he said. “We’re called to do so. It just feels wonderful to be here.”
Mills’ spokesperson did not immediately return a request for comment Sunday. The church last week sued Mills 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.
Pastor Ken Graves speaks to his congregation during an outdoor service at Calvary Chapel in Orrington on Sunday, May 10, 2020, while a member collects offerings and a woman looks on. Credit: Natalie Williams / BDN
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. Judge Nancy Torresen 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 pandemic.
The church is appealing Torresen’s decision to the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston. Graves told worshippers Sunday that, ultimately, the issue will be decided by the U.S. Supreme Court. The penalty for violating a governor’s order is a class E misdemeanor, but Graves said he has not been warned by law enforcement that he could be issued a summons.
Calvary Chapel will continue to hold two services outside and one drive-in service each Sunday until the governor’s gathering restrictions are lifted. But the church most likely will be outside all summer as gatherings of more than 50 people are banned in July and August. The church typically draws 1,200 worshipers to indoor Sunday services.