Delaware governor backs off restrictions on church services

DOVER (AP) — Democratic Gov. John Carney is backing off restrictions he imposed on church worship to prevent the spread of the coronavirus in the face of a federal lawsuit challenging those restrictions as unconstitutional.

State attorneys told a federal judge in a letter Wednesday that the “guidance” Carney had issued for worship services has been “expressly revoked” by new guidance issued Tuesday by public health officials.

Attorneys for Carney added that nothing in the new guidance for houses of worship, or “HWs,” creates or imposes any mandatory restrictions or obligations on them beyond those that are generally applicable to other secular entities, and that the new guidance is meant to serve only as “a helpful aid” for churches and other houses of worship. “As just one example, while houses of worship are currently discouraged from conducting activities in which an officiant physically holds a congregant, as in some baptisms, under the new HW guidance there is no prohibition,” they wrote.

State attorneys also noted that under the second phase of Carney’s plan to reopen Delaware’s economy, attendance of up to 60% of stated fire occupancy will be allowed at worship services.

Nevertheless, state officials continue to discourage in-person activity at houses of worship and say they should strongly consider discontinuing singing and baptisms and discourage congregants from shaking hands or hugging one another.

The letter was sent in advance of a hearing that U.S. District Court Judge Colm Connolly scheduled for today regarding a request for a preliminary injunction to prevent government officials from interfering with church services. The injunction is being sought by attorneys for the Rev. Christopher Allan Bullock, a well-known New Castle County pastor and community activist.

State attorneys contend that the request for an injunction is now moot because of the regulatory changes that have been made.

Thomas Neuberger, an attorney for Bullock, said he was “cautiously optimistic” about the movement by state officials, but that complicated issues regarding Carney’s emergency declaration still need to be resolved.
“It’s going to take some time for us to figure out if this solves the remaining issues,” he said, pointing to state coronavirus guidelines regarding the handling of food and drink.

“I see possible confusion on Communion,” Neuberger said.
In addition to the preliminary injunction, Neuberger is pressing for a permanent injunction that would prohibit future government interference in religious worship, especially if there is a second wave of coronavirus later this year.

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 — something Carney has not done in his twice-weekly coronavirus news conferences. 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.