An Orrington church whose members repeatedly defied gathering limits and mask mandates during the pandemic has asked the U.S. Supreme Court to prevent Gov. Janet Mills from imposing them again because of rising case numbers.
The church’s lawyers filed a petition for an injunction before the governor announced new masking recommendations on Wednesday. The document, dated Friday, was entered into the federal court’s electronic case filing system on Wednesday.
The petition is the latest step in the church’s legal battle against Mills that dates back to May 2020. The filing came nearly a month after Mills’ authority to impose new gathering limits and mask mandates lapsed when Maine’s state of emergency ended on June 30.Mills, however, could declare a new state of emergency under state law.
Mills could declare a new state of emergency under state law, but the Legislature would have to approve of a state of emergency that lasts longer than 90 days.
“Calvary Chapel operated, and continues to operate, under threat of criminal penalty, that the governor – at any moment – declares, as she did in the past, religious services to be non-essential and illegal if they contain more people than she allows,” the petition said.
The church initially sued Mills in May 2020, objecting to what was then a 10-person limit on gatherings aimed at preventing the spread of the coronavirus. The church said that violated the First Amendment.
The gathering limit later grew to 50 and stayed there for much of the past year before loosening in February and disappearing on May 24.
In June, U.S. District Judge Nancy Torresen dismissed the church’s lawsuit as moot.
Last year, the church had appealed Torresen’s denial of a request for a temporary order halting enforcement of Mills’ gathering limits. Calvary Chapel appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court after the appellate court in Boston upheld Torresen’s denial.
The church’s new petition asks the nation’s high court to impose an injunction preventing Mills from imposing new requirements while it decides whether to hear oral arguments in the underlying case. It is scheduled to consider whether to hear oral arguments in September, according to the petition.
“Because of the threat imposed upon Calvary Chapel each day, Calvary Chapel’s requested relief cannot wait until consideration of the merits of its petition,” the church’s lawyers wrote. “Relief is needed now to prevent the governor from imposing her unconstitutional restrictions at a whim.”
Justices have overturned bans and limits on worship services in other states at least 10 times since the pandemic began in March 2020, the petition argued.
“Despite the abundant precedent from this court, Maine ignored it all and continued to impose discriminatory and unconstitutional restrictions on religious worship services long after it became clear they were unconstitutional,” the petition said. “In fact, even after all of the various restrictions had been enjoined or rescinded, Maine maintained the dubious distinction of imposing the most severe restrictions in the nation on places of worship.”
A spokesperson for the Maine Attorney General’s office, which represents the governor, criticized the church’s continued legal actions.
“For more than two months, there have been no restrictions whatsoever on the size of gatherings, and the state of emergency expired at the end of June,” Marc Malon said Thursday. “Given that, we are disappointed that Calvary Chapel continues to waste public and judicial resources by attempting to litigate an issue that is now moot.”
The state is expected to oppose the petition.
Calvary Chapel is represented by the Liberty Counsel of Orlando, Florida.
Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the Legislature’s role in continuing states of emergency.