An evangelical church in Orrington has renewed its effort to lift Gov. Janet Mills’ gathering restrictions on worship services, citing a Feb. 5 U.S. Supreme Court decision that lifted limits in California.
Calvary Chapel’s renewed motion, filed Thursday, seeks to have a judge lift Mills’ 50-person limit on indoor gatherings that was replaced last week with a new guideline for places of worship that is the same as the one for retail stores — five people per 1,000 square feet or 50, whichever is greater.
Ken Graves, founder and pastor of the church, said in an affidavit filed with the motion that the new guideline doesn’t affect his congregation. Even using the square-footage formula, still just 50 people can worship together at Calvary Chapel.
The Orrington church’s motion cites the Supreme Court’s 6-3 decision earlier this month against allowing California to ban indoor worship services in much of the state, where coronavirus cases have been high.
The justices’ ruling set aside decisions by federal judges in San Diego and San Bernardino, and the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco, which upheld the state’s orders, according to the Associated Press.
Justices said the Golden State may limit attendance at indoor services to 25 percent of the building’s capacity, and that singing and chanting — through which people can release virus-carrying respiratory droplets — also may be restricted.
“The conclusion here is simple,” Calvary Chapel’s attorneys argued in the renewed motion. “Numerical caps imposed on religious services while other nonreligious gatherings of like kind are not subject to such caps cannot withstand strict scrutiny.”
Strict scrutiny is the highest legal standard of review courts use to evaluate the constitutionality of discrimination by government.
Calvary Chapel renewed its motion for an injunction nine days after the state filed a motion to dismiss the lawsuit because the original complaint cited the 10-person gathering limit put in place during the early days of the pandemic. It is highly unlikely Mills would reimpose that restriction, the dismissal motion argued.
Neither the governor’s office nor the Maine Attorney General’s office, which must argue against the motion, immediately returned a request for comment. It would be unusual for either office to comment on pending litigation.
Mills, who served as attorney general before being elected governor, has said that her restrictions that apply to worship services will stand up to legal scrutiny because they apply to all indoor gatherings and activities, not just religious services.
While Calvary Chapel has loudly opposed Mills’ restrictions on indoor gatherings throughout the pandemic, the church’s renewed fight against them comes as the Catholic Church has become more vocal in its objections to the limits on indoor worshiping.
Bishop Robert Deeley, head of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland, sharply criticized Mills’ latest change on Thursday, saying it will have little to no impact on the 141 Catholic churches in Maine. Deeley’s objections came at the start of the sacred Lent period.
Calvary Chapel, an independent evangelical church on Route 15, sued the governor early in the pandemic in U.S. District Court in Bangor claiming that the 10-person limit on gatherings then in place violated the freedom of religion clause in the U.S. Constitution. U.S. District Judge Nancy Torresen sided with Mills, and the church appealed to the appellate court in Boston.
The 1st U.S. Circuit in December then sent the case back to Maine on technical grounds.
Calvary Chapel renewed its arguments in the new filing Thursday, but with stronger language.
“For the second time, Calvary Chapel prays to this court to do what the Constitution demands (and has demanded since March 2020, 11 months ago), enjoin the governor from enforcing her discriminatory COVID-19 restrictions that impose draconian and unconscionable restrictions on religious worship services while exempting myriad secular businesses and gatherings from similar restrictions,” the motion says.
The motion demands that an injunction be issued immediately to lift limits on how many people may worship together indoors.
Graves said in his affidavit that the church runs two recovery programs with 24 men and 24 women living in separate facilities. They are required to attend weekly worship services. The 50-person and the square-footage limit prevents other congregants, who can set an example for those in recovery, from attending with them.
The pastor also cited Mills’ threat of fines for business and other entities that exceed gathering limits as forcing people to choose between worship and criminal punishment.
“In a country born on the desire to be free and with the right to worship fundamentally enshrined in our First Amendment, forcing such a Hobson’s choice is unconscionable and frightening,” Graves said. “Since the beginning of the COVID-19 orders issued by the governor, Calvary Chapel has been placed in an irresolvable conflict between compliance with their sincerely held religious beliefs or criminal sanction and fines for violating the governor’s unconstitutional orders.
“Calvary Chapel’s fundamental and sincerely held religious beliefs compel [its members] to gather together, to study the Bible together, to fellowship together, to pray for one another and with one another in person, to lay hands on the sick, to baptize, and to disciple the residents in Calvary Residential Discipleship program,” the pastor said.
Responses to the motion are due March 11. Because motions for injunctive relief move on a faster track than other motions, a decision is expected by the end of next month.