On The Front Lines
Delaware Promises Not to Re-Impose Discriminatory COVID-19 Restrictions Against Churches in a Victory for Religious Freedom
WILMINGTON, Del. — In a victory for religious liberty, The Rutherford Institute has reached a settlement with the State of Delaware over a First Amendment lawsuit challenging discriminatory COVID-19 restrictions that applied to churches but not big-box shopping stores, liquor stores, and guns shops. Under the settlement, Delaware promises not to reissue rules targeting churches that limit the number of persons who can worship, the number of services that can be held, and how churches conduct rituals such as baptism and communion. The lawsuit, Rev. Dr. Christopher Allen Bullock v. Gov. John C. Carney, was filed on behalf of Rev. Bullock, the founder and pastor for Canaan Baptist Church near New Castle, Del., who believes the state’s restrictions overstepped the wall of separation between church and state.
Attorneys Thomas S. Neuberger, Stephen J. Neuberger, Martin D. Haverly and Thomas Crumplar worked with The Rutherford Institute in defending Rev. Bullock’s First Amendment rights.
“A pandemic doesn’t override the Constitution. While the government believes it has a compelling interest—albeit a temporary one—in restricting gatherings, assemblies and movement in public in order to minimize the spread of this virus, these one-time constraints can very quickly become a slippery slope to a total lockdown mindset,” said constitutional attorney John W. Whitehead, president of The Rutherford Institute and author of Battlefield America: The War on the American People. “What we must guard against, more than ever before, is the tendency to become so accustomed to these COVID-19 restrictions—lockdowns, authoritarian dictates, and police state tactics justified as necessary for national security—that we allow the government to keep having its way in all things, without any civic resistance or objections being raised.”
In March 2020, Delaware Gov. John Carney declared a state of emergency relating to the COVID-19 pandemic and soon after issued additional emergency orders limiting the size of gatherings within the state. By April 1, the Governor had ordered that no indoor gatherings of more than 10 persons could be held. The ban on gatherings was specifically applicable to churches and “strongly encouraged” houses of worship to transition to remote services by video or telephone. However, the ban on gatherings contained numerous exceptions, allowing big-box shopping stores, liquor stores, and guns shops to be open without having to abide by a 10-person restriction. Rev. Bullock, the pastor of Canaan Baptist Church, who was holding on-line services for his 2500-member congregation, sought to challenge what he saw as unequal and unfair treatment of churches under the Governor’s emergency restrictions, especially when compared to the less strident restrictions imposed on big-box shopping stores, liquor stores, and guns shops. In the wake of the First Amendment lawsuit filed by attorneys for The Rutherford Institute, Delaware officials progressively backed off on the governor’s emergency restrictions for churches. A May 18 revised order limited the length of worship services to one hour and attendance at church services to 30% of normal capacity, and then only if persons attending wear masks and maintain “social distancing” separation of six feet. Later guidance rescinded any attempt to dictate to churches, offering only recommendations as they use their best judgment about how best to minister to their congregants during a pandemic. Despite the revision of the original orders, Institute attorneys argued that a court declaration was needed to prevent the governor from reinstituting the kind of discriminatory restrictions that prompted the lawsuit.
The Rutherford Institute, a nonprofit civil liberties organization, defends individuals whose constitutional rights have been violated and educates the public about threats to their freedoms.