An Orrington church’s appeal challenging Gov. Janet Mills’ coronavirus-related gathering limits was rejected on technical grounds Tuesday by the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston.
A three-judge panel sent the case back to U.S. District Court Judge Nancy Torreson in Bangor. While the panel didn’t rule on the case, Judge Bruce Selya said in the opinion that, in a pandemic, “public interest demands that public officials be accorded considerable latitude to grapple with the ‘dynamic and fact-intensive’ considerations involved in mounting an effective response.”
Torreson is expected to schedule further proceedings in the case.
Calvary Chapel, an independent evangelical church on Route 15, claims that the 10-person limit Mills placed on gatherings in the early days of the pandemic violated the freedom of religion clause in the U.S. Constitution.
Indoor gatherings, including worship services, currently are limited to 50 people, provided that those in attendance wear masks and socially distance.
The state argued that the public health crisis caused by the pandemic allowed the governor to set those limits without violating the Constitution.
The appellate court found that it couldn’t review Torreson’s denial of a temporary restraining order so early in the court case.
Maine Attorney General Aaron Frey said the appellate court “correctly recognized that public officials must be given considerable latitude as they work to take appropriate actions to protect their communities from the deadly COVID-19 virus.”
“The challenged restriction applies to all manner of gatherings, not just those in houses of worship, and gatherings pose unique risks in spreading the virus,” he said. “We are confident that the governor’s carefully crafted measures, developed in close consultation with public health officials, will continue to survive constitutional challenges.”
Roger Gannam, an attorney with the Liberty Council in Orlando, Florida, which represents the church, called Tuesday’s decision disappointing because appellate judges in other parts of the country have found they could rule on the merits of similar cases.
Gannam said that the U.S. Supreme Court’s November decision in a New York case found that that state’s limits on gatherings at houses of worship unconstitutional should be applied to the Maine case. That decision was a reversal of an earlier ruling issued before the death of liberal Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg in September.
The justices split 5-4, with new Justice Amy Coney Barrett in the majority. It was the conservative justice’s first publicly discernible vote as a justice, according to The Associated Press. The court’s three liberal justices and Chief Justice John Roberts dissented.
Previously, justices divided 5-4 to leave in place pandemic-related capacity restrictions affecting churches in California and Nevada.
The Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention has confirmed coronavirus outbreaks in a number of Maine churches throughout the pandemic, including in Sanford, Jonesport, Pittsfield, Brooks, Calais, Patten and Manchester.