Nonjury trial eyed in suit over virus worship restrictions

DOVER — A federal judge has denied a cleric’s request for a preliminary injunction against Democratic Gov. John Carney over restrictions he imposed on church worship to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

U.S. District Court Judge Colm Connolly on Thursday denied the request for an injunction as moot, given changes that Carney made to his restrictions following the filing of lawsuit challenging them as unconstitutional.

Attorneys for Carney and for the Rev. Christopher Allan Bullock, a well-known New Castle County pastor and community activist, are now looking ahead to nonjury trial on Bullock’s claims and on his request for a permanent injunction to prevent the state from imposing restrictions on religious worship in the future.

Connolly is expected to set a trial date sometime in late summer or fall after Carney’s attorneys file a formal answer to Bullock’s complaint.

“I’m guardedly optimistic that this case is progressing in the right direction, and that the governor has seen the error of his ways,” said Stephen Neuberger, an attorney for Bullock.

Attorneys for Carney told Connolly in a letter Wednesday that nothing in new guidelines that were adopted by state officials a day earlier creates or imposes any mandatory restrictions or obligations on houses of worship beyond those that are generally applicable to other secular entities.

But Neuberger said concerns remain over issues such as the impact on Communion of mandates regarding the handling of food, including a ban on handing out unwrapped food products to individuals for immediate consumption using bare hand to bare hand contact.

“I think under the establishment clause, the state is not allowed to tell them what to do when it comes to Communion,” he told Connolly, adding that the required use of face masks or face shields for anyone speaking or singing to an audience also remains problematic.

Carney in March ordered that worship services be limited to no more than 10 people, a restriction he did not impose at that time on more than 230 other business and industry entities deemed “essential.” Amid increasing criticism, Carney issued a revised emergency declaration last month allowing churches to choose between abiding by the 10-person limit or allowing attendance of up to 30% of stated fire occupancy — but only if they complied with several conditions dictating how worship services could be held.

Those conditions included requiring the use of face masks and gloves and banning person-to-person Communion, physical contact during baptisms, and prohibiting the use of choirs, handheld microphones and holy water receptacles. Churches also were told to deny entry to anyone 65 or older.

After Bullock filed his lawsuit, Carney withdrew some of the restrictions and revised others. The revised limitations included requiring worship leaders and singers to wear masks or face shields when speaking or singing. If they are unable to do so, the state suggested, they should turn their backs to the congregation.

Carney changed his position yet again on Sunday, rescinding worship restrictions he had imposed May 18, which had already been superseded by revisions that were imposed May 23 and which remain in place.

The guidance issued Sunday eliminated the option for houses of worship to hold ceremonies as they please as long as no more than 10 people are present. It also required that anyone speaking, reading or singing to a live audience must face away from the audience if they are not wearing a face covering or face shield. Other alternatives include keeping at least 13 feet (4 meters) away from the audience or standing behind a physical barrier or partition, such as a sneeze guard.

“You can’t preach effectively or speak effectively while wearing a face mask,” said Neuberger, adding that former Vice President Joe Biden did not wear a mask over his face and did not maintain the 13-foot mandated distance from his audience when speaking to leaders of the black community, including Bullock, at church in Wilmington on Monday.

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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