District Court judge to decide Friday on expanding religious service limitations

WILMINGTON — After hearing arguments on Delaware’s ongoing religious service limitations for nearly three hours, a federal judge left to further consider whether some traditions can expand by Sunday as the COVID-19 pandemic continues.

Near the end of Thursday afternoon’s hearing, United States District Court Judge Colm F. Connolly indicated he would review modifications to Gov. John Carney’s state of emergency order to analyze whether religious freedoms are being infringed upon by constitutional violations.

The hearing stemmed from a recently filed civil lawsuit filed against Gov. Carney by the Rev. Dr. Christopher Bullock of Canaan Baptist Church in New Castle, who seeks an expanded reopening of religious sanctuaries effective Sunday, May 31, known by some as the feast of Pentecost.

Thomas Neuberger

At particular issue were requirements for preachers to wear masks and turn from congregations at times, a ban on holding or touching in baptisms and preparation for the distribution of communion. Plaintiff attorney Thomas Neuberger pointed to current attendances inside churches and asked that religious institutions fall under the same guidelines as other industries as determined by the state.

With a sense of urgency, the judge asked Deputy Attorney General Allison McCowan to provide the state’s stance on social distancing and hygiene rules, preparation and distribution of food and drink guidance and gathering and occupancy mandates.

Judge Connolly asked if the material could be provided by Thursday night and set a deadline of 9 a.m. Friday with the hope of issuing findings later in the day regarding a temporary restraining order that was filed last week.

“These are very important issues and both sides brought to argument today thoughtful and appropriate remarks,” he said.

While Ms. McCowan acknowledged the notion that the Rev. Bullock holds sincere religious beliefs, Mr. Neuberger espoused that Gov. Carney has acted with diligence and has a compelling interest in preventing the spread of COVID-19 in Delaware.

The judge opted to consider only issues relevant to before Delaware’s June 1 phased reopening step. He believed that the plaintiff’s case would be stronger on June 1 and noted that some issues have been favorably resolved as the governor continues to modify the original order.

Helpful Coronavirus links

Delaware Division of Health Coronavirus Page
CDC: About the Coronavirus Disease 2019
CDC: What to do if You Are Sick
Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center
AP News Coronavirus Coverage
Reopening Delaware: Resources for Businesses
Delaware Phase 2 guidance

Have a question, tip, or resources about the coronavirus pandemic? Submit it to our newsroom and we’ll do what we can to provide answers.