Lawsuit, rally call for full reopening of houses of worship

DOVER — There’s now more opportunity to worship in person, but it’s still not enough for some.

The day after Delaware Gov. John Carney eased some church restrictions on Tuesday, a New Castle area pastor filed a federal lawsuit against him claiming racial discrimination and constitutional rights violations through religious freedom limitations.

Other concerns are about to be aired publicly, too.

The Religious Freedom Rally at noon Saturday in Dover will push for completely opening houses of worship as the COVID-19 pandemic continues. The event is set for The Green around the Freedom Bell Monument.

The governor’s modifications this week increased the maximum amount of service attendees to 30% of a church’s fire code capacity while practicing strict social distancing. Previously, no more than 10 persons were allowed inside, including church staff and attendees.

Rally organizer Lisa McCulley believes the increase falls far short of hoped for complete openings.

Ms. McCulley, who founded the grassroots Delawareans Against Excessive Quarantine group to re-open the state, said feedback from a few hundred religious leaders is clear.

“Pastors want their flocks to gather like the Bible says they should,” she said, noting that more than a dozen group members have communicated with churches.

“All the rules not allowing them to do so are infringing on the freedom of religion. It’s pretty simple — the rules are violating constitutional rights. Period.”

According to Ms. McCulley, who cited declining hospitalizations in Delaware overall, “We believe this virus is real and people should take precautions — we’re not going to tell anybody what to do.

“This is America and it’s a free country.”

There’s hope for a crowd of 200 or more Saturday, McCulley said, adding “We shall see.” Her group’s Facebook page has more than 9,000 members and 1,000 or so people “who came in to hate and disagree” have been blocked.

Maryland also recently amended restrictions. As of May 15, religious facilities — including churches, synagogues, mosques, temples and similar places of worship — are open to the public with no more than 50% of maximum occupancy inside.

Seeking to return

In his 31-page civil action, the Rev. Dr. Christopher Bullock seeks one dollar in compensatory damages with the overriding opening religious sanctuaries effective Sunday, May 31, known by some as the feast of Pentecost. The Rev. Dr. Bullock is founder and pastor of Canaan Baptist Church.

Also sought is “eventual relief preventing the future implementation of his previous illegal orders and their removal as legal precedents for similar future emergency action during the present or future pandemics.”

Governor’s spokesman Jon Starkey said on Thursday that the office’s legal team is reviewing the matter.

The lawsuit cited a belief that “the wholesale shutdown of religious worship has a severe racially discriminatory purpose and effect on the African-American faith community which is made up of many small churches and their parishioners, without the wealth of white churches and their parishioners, which and who can so easily switch to services on-line.”

The emergency order is a violation of the First and 14th Amendments for the right to religious freedom, speech, assembly, and association, “as well to be free of government establishment of religion,” according to the lawsuit.

Canaan Baptist Church has 1,200 active members with a sanctuary of 10,950 square feet, according to the lawsuit. A fellowship hall holds 350 for any overflow and the fire marshal previously limited attendance to no more than 500 in the sanctuary at a service.

Normally, Canaan Baptist Sunday church services are held at 8 a.m. and 11 a.m. and also broadcast live on Facebook and YouTube, according to the lawsuit.

The Rev. Dr. Bullock is represented in the action by attorney Thomas Neuberger, who represented the Committee To Save Christmas in a six-page letter to Gov. Carney last week.

In that correspondence, Mr. Neuberger called for expanded religious gatherings inside churches, synagogues and mosques, emphasizing that proper social distancing and standard health related procedures are in place.

On Thursday, Mr. Neuberger said he’d received no response to the letter.

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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