Lawsuit regarding religious worship settled

DOVER — Attorneys for a Delaware cleric say they’ve reached a settlement with Gov. John Carney over the coronavirus restrictions he imposed on worship services.

The Rev. Christopher Allan Bullock filed a lawsuit in May claiming Carney’s restrictions were unconstitutional and discriminatory. Carney then rescinded many of the restrictions, and his lawyers argued Bullock’s claims were moot. But Bullock’s attorneys asked for an injunction prohibiting the governor from imposing similar limitations in the future.

Lawyers representing the New Castle County pastor and community activist said Wednesday that the settlement requires the governor to treat houses of worship in a neutral manner in any future emergency.

Among other things, if certain businesses or activities are considered essential, that definition will include churches. Restrictions that apply only to religious rituals, such as baptism and Communion, would be forbidden, as would age-based attendance limits imposed solely on religious worship, according to Bullock’s attorneys.

Attorney Thomas Neuberger said the state also agreed to pay the plaintiffs $150,000 in lawyer fees and $7,200 in court costs. After the check is received, a stipulation of dismissal will be filed with the court, he said.

“This is a Christmas miracle,’ Neuberger said in a news release. “[T]he Governor made many mistakes here but it was an emergency.

“No one questions his good faith, he just got bad advice from his purported expert religious advisors.”

According to the attorney, “The State negotiated a good deal for the taxpayers here and negotiated us down 66% on our legal fees.”

Regarding the payment process, Neuberger said, “The money for legal fees and costs will be wired to an attorneys trust account and then distributed among the legal team and reimbursed to members of the community who donated costs to pay for the overhead in the case in court charges.”

Asked for comment, Carney spokesman Jonathan Starkey issued a statement that did not directly address the lawsuit or the settlement.

“All of Governor Carney’s actions during this COVID-19 crisis have been focused on protecting lives. COVID doesn’t distinguish between a church, a restaurant or your living room,” the statement read. “Without the right precautions, it will spread. We continue to urge all Delawareans to take this threat seriously heading into the winter.”

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, he issued a revised emergency declaration 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, a restriction not placed on secular businesses.

Bullock’s attorneys also noted that while Baptisms were banned, there was no prohibition on Jewish circumcisions or on daycare workers and doctors holding infants.

“It went on and on, treating religious freedom different from secular acts which had no First Amendment protections,” said Neuberger, who noted that attorneys Tom Crumplar, Martin Haverly and Steve Neuberger assisted in the case.

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 were unable to do so, the state suggested, they should turn their backs to the congregation.

Carney then changed his position again, eliminating the option for houses of worship to hold ceremonies as they please as long as no more than 10 people are present. The new guidance also required that anyone speaking, reading or singing to a live audience must face away from the audience if they were not wearing a face covering or face shield. Other alternatives included keeping at least 13 feet (4 meters) away from the audience or standing behind a physical barrier or partition, such as a sneeze guard. Carney later eliminated that directive as well.

Bullock’s attorneys told the judge three months ago that Carney was fighting their effort to depose him under oath. Carney’s attorneys argued that there was no need to depose him. A trial in the case had been scheduled for September.

Staff writer Craig Anderson contributed to this story.