Pastor ups legal challenge against Gov. Carney in attempt to fully open places of worship
Wanting churches to be fully opened for the Christian holiday of Pentecost, a New Castle-area pastor upped his legal challenge against Gov. John Carney on Friday requesting a temporary restraining order.
The request by the Rev. Christopher Bullock asks the federal court to proceed on an expedited emergency basis in order to fully open churches by May 31.
"The churches – the voice of the people, the voice of morality, the voice of love, and power, and hope which is so desperately needed in these dark times – are muzzled," Bullock said in a statement on Friday. "The churches need to be open and people need to be blessed by what the churches, the synagogues and the mosques have to offer the people."
To not fully open churches, Bullock said, violates his rights to religious freedom under the First and 14th Amendments.
Bullock's lawsuit, filed on Tuesday, comes a day after Carney issued new guidance for places of worship, allowing groups to host expanded in-person religious services under certain restrictions.
But Bullock, pastor of Canaan Baptist Church, called Carney's instructions "ambiguous," adding that what works for one church does not always work for another church, synagogue or mosque.
"I read the order carefully," he said. "It's ambiguous. It's restrictive. It's intrusive and it goes against what the Bible says we should do, that is we should praise God in a sanctuary."
Carney's office said they are reviewing the 30-page complaint, which was filed on Tuesday in Wilmington's U.S. District Court.
Among Carney's new guidance, gatherings must be limited to 30% of the fire code capacity and strict social distancing must be maintained. In-person services were previously limited to 10 people at a time.
Also, service times cannot run longer than one hour and must be staggered for the area to be cleaned.
These guidelines can be problematic for some churches, said Bullock, who added that some African American preachers take about an hour to get started. He also pointed out that depending on the size of the temples and congregations, worshipers might not be able to attend God's House as often as they choose.
"It is too intrusive. We know how to take care of ourselves," he said. "We don't need the government to tell us what to do, how long to do it and why to do it."
Bullock said he doesn't want to force churches to open if they are not ready. That should be left to each individual place of worship and each worshiper.
"We respect law and order," Bullock said. "But when it comes to the things of God, the government should not be as intrusive as it has been here in Delaware and around the country."
The lawsuit, filed as Delaware's coronavirus cases and deaths continue to climb, also said churches were treated differently from retailers and other secular activities, claiming there weren't as many restrictions on liquor stores, casinos or certain retailers.
As an example, Bullock said that after preaching to about 10 members of Canaan Baptist Church last Sunday, he went to Target where he saw people who would normally be at his services, but were not able to because of the restrictions.
"If they can go to Target," Bullock said, "then why aren't they allowed to come to the House of God?"
Bullock is among a series of clergy who have filed lawsuits against state and local governments claiming emergency orders enacted to prevent the spread of COVID-19 violated their rights to worship freely.
These clergy have found support at the federal level.
The federal Justice Department sided with a Mississippi church last month in its lawsuit against local police there. The department also sided with a Virginia church in its challenge to a state shutdown order limiting the size of religious gatherings.
And over the weekend, a federal judge blocked North Carolina governor's enforcement of restrictions that two Baptist churches argued violated their rights to worship freely. They also said the restrictions treated them differently from retailers and other secular activities.
COVID-19 legal actions:
People of faith were good citizens and team players, going along when the restrictions were initially put in place, said Wilmington attorney Thomas S. Neuberger, whose law firm and that of Martin D. Haverly and Jacobs & Crumplar, represent Bullock.
"But now that the curve has been bent and the hospital system is more than adequate and the modeling predictions proved to be false, people of faith want their freedoms restored," Neuberger said.
"It is totally unfair to tell the elderly they are going to die from the virus but deny them the right go to their church and as a group seek the intervention and mercy of God," he added. "Only totalitarian governments act in this way, like China or Soviet Russia or Hitler's Germany.
"And it is an abomination to deny family and friends the last look at a parent or friend in a normal funeral service, to say goodbye."
The lawsuit seeks an injunction to allow churches to open up religious worship by May 31, which is the Feast of Pentecost, which commemorates the descent of the Holy Spirit upon the Apostles and other followers of Jesus Christ.
Contact Esteban Parra at (302) 324-2299, email@example.com or Twitter @eparra3.