Pastor's legal challenge to lift Delaware COVID-19 restrictions in hands of federal judge

Esteban Parra
Delaware News Journal

A pastor's fight to have portions of Delaware's COVID-19 restrictions on communities of worship lifted before Sunday's Christian holiday of Pentecost is now being considered by a federal judge. 

While no decision was rendered following Thursday's nearly three-hour hearing, U.S. District Judge Colm F. Connolly was able to whittle down the areas of contention in the temporary retraining order sought by the Rev. Christoper Bullock to four areas:

  • The preparation and distribution of communion.
  • No holding or touching during baptisms.
  • The clergy have to wear a mask while preaching. 
  • How many people are allowed in places of worship during services.
Rev. Christopher Bullock gives the invocation at the investiture for Tamika Montgomery-Reeves earlier this year at Howard High School.

Bullock's legal push is encouraging for those who believe Gov. John Carney restrictions are overreaching and a violation of religious freedoms. 

"When you start to tell churches who may come to their services, how old they can be, how many can come, how they must celebrate the Lord's Supper, how they baptize and how long their services can be ... how can you say you are not establishing 'modes of worship' and interfering with the free exercise of religious worship?" said the Rev. David Landow, pastor of Wilmington's Emmanuel Presbyterian Church and a supporter of Bullock's lawsuit. 

The federal suit also gives pause to some clergy who believe that opening places of worship more broadly will endanger the faithful, particularly older congregants wanting to return to churches, mosques or synagogues.

"Be it Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Buddhism ... each of our traditions tells us that sanctifying, protecting human life and preserving human health is our first obligation," said Michael Beals, rabbi at Wilmington's Congregation Beth Shalom and a proponent of keeping Carney's recent guidance for communities of worship in place. "If you don't preserve human health, we can't get to all the other spiritual concerns." 

According to Beals, who chairs the governor's Delaware Council of Faith-Based Partnerships, opening places of worship could expose people to the virus that has killed more than 100,000 people in the United States. 

Rabbi Michael Beals

Bullock's attorneys want Connolly to rule on the temporary restraining order on Sunday, but the federal judge did not indicate when he would issue his ruling. He did ask state attorneys to file any outstanding paperwork by 9 a.m. Friday. 

Religious freedom arguments are growing across the country as states ease pandemic restrictions and churches and other religious institutions seek equal treatment. 

Legal battles in several states have led to showdowns in California, Illinois and elsewhere on the eve of Pentecost Sunday, when churches largely shuttered since before Easter are eager to greet worshippers, USA Today reported.

President Donald Trump, Vice President Mike Pence and many religious leaders are demanding that state and local governments treat churches the same as most businesses. Trump last week labeled churches, synagogues and mosques as "essential places that provide essential services."

On the other side are governors and public health authorities, including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which has linked religious services to outbreaks of COVID-19. In one example, the CDC said 38% of those attending a rural Arkansas church in early March caught the virus, resulting in four deaths.

The churches have become the latest to join protests against coronavirus restrictions. Legal battles in Kansas, Kentucky, Minnesota, Mississippi, Virginia and elsewhere follow other skirmishes involving abortion clinics, retail businesses and primary elections.

CHURCH VS. STATE:As churches reopen, Supreme Court faces balancing act between physical and spiritual health

Last week, Delaware eased restrictions on places of worship, which for weeks included limiting in-person services to 10 people.

On May 18, Carney issued new guidance allowing groups to host expanded in-person religious services under certain restrictions, including limiting gatherings to 30% of the fire code capacity and "strict" social distancing. Carney's order said 30% occupancy would only be allowed under certain conditions, including having preacher wearing a mask during services.  

The following day, Bullock filed his federal lawsuit, saying Carney's restrictions violated his right to religious freedom under the First and 14th amendments. He contends the guidance amounts to orders because anyone who violates them can be imprisoned.

Bullock says places of worship know how to take care of their congregations and do not want to place anyone in danger. He said they would follow guidance issued by the CDC. 

Rev. Christopher Bullock speaks to The News Journal about his federal lawsuit to reopen up Delaware's places of worship Tuesday, May 19, 2020, in New Castle.

Thomas S. Neuberger, one of Bullock's attorneys, said the pastor of Canaan Baptist Church intends to open his church "slow and easy."

"They will be more careful with opening than the retail stores treat their customers," Neuberger said. 

Attorney Thomas S. Neuberger

Carney administration has quietly modified its instructions, including to allow for more than one day for services per week and allow services to be longer than an hour.

But it kept other restrictions, which Bullock is asking the court to weigh in on. This includes not allowing holding or touching during baptisms.

"The governor says they can't hold a once-in-a-lifetime adult baptism, but doctors are allowed to put on their gloves and touch their patients every day in their offices or at the hospital," Neuberger said. "This kind of discrimination is impermissible under the First Amendment." 

Rabbi Beals said he is concerned the people most likely to attend services are older and most at risk of contracting coronavirus. 

"We won't be able to implement those safeguards for synagogue-goers or churchgoers who haven't seen each other in two months," he said. "God help the rabbi or pastor that stands in the way of congregants who want to hug after not seeing each other for so long."

Beals said it is more difficult for places of worship to enforce some of the governor's guidelines than it would be for a business. For example, he said stores can pay people to stand outside the business and count who goes in and who goes out. 

"Who am I supposed to pay? We don't have paid employees like that," he said. "And which congregant would really want to tell another congregant they can't come in?" 

Before he feels comfortable with places of worship opening up, Beals said certain benchmarks need to be met: These would be a 14-day downtrend of new cases; more COVID-19 testing; and contact tracing. 

Contact Esteban Parra at (302) 324-2299, or Twitter @eparra3.