A church in Orrington has sued the governor in a federal court for a state ban on personal worship during the coronavirus crisis.
Faith communities cannot come together in person for weeks. Governor Janet Mills announced last week that religious groups are now permitted to provide drive-in services as long as worshipers remain in their cars and follow other recommendations to maintain physical distance.
The Calvary Chapel filed a complaint Tuesday in the U.S. District Court in Bangor. The Church believes that extending the ban on meeting more than 10 people to worship services is a violation of religious freedom protected by the U.S. Constitution. They said the business was allowed to reopen without the same restrictions as the church, and the complaints included photos from a busy weekend parking lot outside Walmart and other shops in Bangor.
“Calvary Chapel seeks not to discredit or discard the unquestioning interest of the government in carrying out the institutionalized tasks – protecting citizens,” the complaint said. “However, as is often the case in times of crisis, Calvary Chapel respectfully conveyed that in an effort to uphold his oath, Governor Mills had stepped over the line that was not permitted by the Constitution. Therefore, Calvary Chapel took this action to ensure that this Court protected the freedom loved by many who fought and died. “
The governor briefly spoke about the lawsuit during Wednesday’s press conference. He said he had not read the complaint but had contacted the Maine Church Council and other religious organizations throughout the coronavirus crisis.
“While I respect everyone’s First Amendment rights to practice their faith and their chosen religion, I suggest that public health demands certain changes in the way we do things, and most churches in Maine understand that and acknowledge that,” Mills said.
He quoted from a letter written by the Maine Church Council and posted on his Facebook page last week. The council has called on the churches to refrain from driving services to prevent the spread of disease. The executive director did not respond to emails late Wednesday about the governor’s statement and lawsuit.
“We know this is not easy,” the council said. “But we sincerely ask the Maine churches to continue to refrain from meeting personal worship. … Do this as a manifestation of the love you have for your neighbor and self. Do this in a faithful response to the biblical mandate to protect the most vulnerable, the marginalized, the weak and the helpless. “
Similar lawsuits have been filed in federal courts in other states, but the results vary.
A federal judge in Illinios refused a similar request for a temporary restraining order which will allow the church to host services with 80 people. On the other hand, another federal judge in Kansas siding with two churches and prevent the imposition of a limit of 10 people on direct attendance at religious services or activities.
In Maine, Calvary Chapel also sought temporary detention orders to prevent law enforcement from enforcing governor’s restrictions at a meeting of more than 10 people. The complaint said that the church intends to follow social guidelines on distance and personal hygiene during the service in its building, such as requiring the audience to be six feet apart during the service.
“There is no emergency assistance from this Court, Calvary Chapel, her pastor, and all congregations will suffer immediate and irreparable injuries from the threat of criminal prosecution because the act is only involved in free religious training and going to church,” the complaint said. “Indeed, if Calvary Chapel, her pastor, or her congregation does not adhere to what Governor Mills has designated as orthodox in worship, they risk becoming criminals in the State.”
It is not clear how quickly the court will act on the complaint. District Judge A. Nancy Torresen has scheduled a telephone conference in this case for Thursday morning.
This story can be updated.
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