Group calls for expanding religious worship gathering guidelines

Thomas Neuberger

WILMINGTON — In six-page a letter to Gov. John Carney sent Wednesday, the Committee To Save Christmas called for expanding religious worship gathering guidelines while looking ahead to December.

“With eight months now remaining before the communal celebration of Christmas, now is the time for Carney to take proper steps to allow religious worship inside churches, synagogues and mosques, provided social distancing and other generally applicable health related precautions are responsibly practiced by the religious congregations,” according to a news release issued by attorney Thomas Neuberger, who signed the letter to the governor.

Mr. Neuberger did not identify any Committee to Save Christmas members, but said they come from the “legal, religious and political community.”

He would not disclose supporter’s names “for fear of retaliation from municipal, county and state officials,” he said during a phone interview.

Deputy Chief of Staff for Communications Jon Starkey said Thursday the governor’s team is reviewing the correspondence.

No more than 10 persons, including clergy, staff and participants, are currently allowed inside a religious facility during any service in Delaware based on state of emergency restrictions to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

According to the news release, “Carney’s orders allow secular activities but not religious worship activities.

“Grocery stores, law firms, laundromats, liquor stores, and landscaping businesses, among others, continue to operate so long as they follow social distancing and other health-related precautions.

“But Carney’s orders do not permit soul-sustaining group services of faith organizations, even if the groups adhere to all the public health guidelines required of the other services. Under his orders, a person can go out to a liquor store to buy beer but cannot go out to their church to worship God.

“Such a distinction cannot stand, because if beer is ‘essential,’ so is Christmas.”

Regarding his orders, Mr. Neuberger said, “Nobody questions Gov. Carney’s good faith in this.”

The letter referenced a May 8 federal court decision — Tabernacle Baptist Church, Inc. v. Beshear — halting the Kentucky governor’s temporary ban on mass gatherings and their effects on in-person religious services.

The Associated Press reported that U.S. District Judge Gregory F. Van Tatenhove issued a temporary restraining order enjoining Gov. Andy Beshear’s administration from enforcing the ban on mass gatherings at “any in-person religious service which adheres to applicable social distancing and hygiene guidelines.”

Also, the letter noted that violation of the governor’s emergency orders “constitutes a crime punishable by six months in prison for any member of our faith communities.

“And fear of such imprisonment prevented Christians from attending Church services on Easter Sunday (this year). Your orders ‘criminalized the communal celebration of Easter’ and barred citizens from gathering in their churches from this most holy day of the year.”

First Amendment rights are also being infringed, according to the correspondence, since emergency orders “bar citizens from (the right to) assemble, speak, protest and petition the government for redress of grievances, grievances such as your criminalization of religious worship throughout the state.

“Any citizen bold enough to do so, now or in the Fall, does so at the whim and mercy of you and local law enforcement officers. This chills protected First Amendment rights.”

The letter concluded with, “The time of emergency is coming to an end, and there are many months to thoughtfully prepare for a Fall surge of the virus.

“But the illegal hurried infringements of vital constitutional freedoms will remain on the books as precedents unless these past errors are corrected to a return to the normal before this crisis arose.”

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

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