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On The Front Lines

In a Major Victory for the Right of Churches to Be Free of Government Meddling, Delaware Rescinds COVID-19 Restrictions on Worship Services

WILMINGTON, Del. — In a major victory for the First Amendment rights of churches to not be unfairly discriminated against in their efforts to worship in accordance with their religious beliefs, Delaware will no longer impose any mandatory COVID-19 restrictions on houses of worship beyond those that are generally applicable to other secular entities. The concession comes in the wake of a First Amendment lawsuit filed by Rutherford Institute attorneys in Rev. Dr. Christopher Allen Bullock v. Gov. John C. Carney, which challenges the manner in which state governments have subjected churches to more strident COVID-19 restrictions while allowing exceptions for big-box shopping stores, liquor stores, and guns shops. The latest guidance, issued by the governor’s office on June 2, removes all prior prohibitions and mandatory restrictions on church gatherings, replacing them with recommendations that churches can use as they determine how best to safely and responsibly minister to their congregants.

Attorneys Thomas S. Neuberger, Stephen J. Neuberger, Martin D. Haverly and Thomas Crumplar are working with The Rutherford Institute in defense of Rev. Bullock’s First Amendment rights.

“This was never about churches attempting to be rebellious. Rather, these are religious institutions attempting to do what they do best, which is to provide spiritual comfort to people who are living through difficult times,” said constitutional attorney John W. Whitehead, president of The Rutherford Institute and author of Battlefield America: The War on the American People. “The government shouldn’t be in the business of micromanaging churches. This establishes a dangerous precedent that will come back to haunt us. At a minimum, if bars and businesses can be trusted to operate responsibly, churches should be treated the same.”

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 has been 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 have progressively backed off on the governor’s emergency restrictions for churches. A May 18 revised order issued 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. The latest guidance rescinds 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. Going forward, Institute attorneys have asked the court for a permanent injunction that would prohibit future government interference in religious worship, especially if the nation is stricken by a second wave of coronavirus as feared later this year.

Case History

May 19, 2020 • Rutherford Institute Sues Delaware for Overstepping First Amendment Restrictions, Meddling in Church Affairs and Violating Religious Freedom


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