The attorney for an evangelical church in Orrington that sued Gov. Janet Mills’ administration over its early COVID-19 restrictions was back in court Wednesday to argue for an appeal of the case.
Calvary Chapel sued Mills in early May alleging that the state’s order limiting gathering sizes to 10 people violated the freedom of religion and assembly clauses of the First Amendment and other laws designed to protect houses of worship.
The church and its pastor, Ken Graves, sought a temporary restraining order that would have allowed Calvary Chapel to resume in-person services, as well as a permanent injunction to allow all congregations to worship as they did before the shutdown orders were imposed.
But U.S. District Judge Nancy Torresen sided with the governor, finding that granting the temporary restraining order was not in the public interest. That was before the state’s limit on indoor gatherings was expanded to 50 people at the end of May. The state also now allows outdoor gatherings of up to 100 people.
Now, the church has appealed the case to the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston. On Wednesday, the church’s attorney, Roger Gannam of the organization Liberty Counsel, gave oral arguments — virtually — before a three-judge panel.
Among other arguments, Gannam said that the state was violating Calvary Chapel’s religious liberties by not allowing it to hold gatherings of a size that would be allowed for organizations deemed essential, such as a social service agency.
The panel also heard a response from Chris Taub, chief of the litigation division of the Maine attorney general’s office. Among other points, he reiterated the importance of the state’s public health guidelines and said they were not as restrictive of religious services as the Orrington chapel has argued.
The appeal comes as another Maine evangelical pastor, Todd Bell, has also been publicly fighting the state’s COVID-19 restrictions after officiating an Aug. 7 wedding in the Millinocket area that has sparked the state’s largest coronavirus outbreak, and after at least 10 members of Bell’s church have tested positive for the disease.
A separate church in Searsport that’s an offshoot of Calvary Chapel has also been holding outdoor services that violate local rules and have been attended by up to 200 people.
Aside from that small group of detractors, Maine’s churches have been far more likely to follow the state’s COVID-19 limits on gatherings than to resist them.
Calvary Chapel’s wasn’t the only challenge to Maine’s coronavirus restrictions that the federal appeals court heard Wednesday. The three-judge panel also heard an appeal from a group of campground and restaurant owners in southern Maine who have been fighting Mills’ 14-day quarantine requirement for out-of-state visitors.
The business owners also sued the Mills administration in May, and a federal judge upheld the state’s quarantine requirement.