On The Front Lines
Rutherford Institute Asks Court to Guard Against Future COVID-19 Restrictions That Discriminate Against Churches but Favor Bars, Big Box Stores, Restaurants, et al.
WILMINGTON, Del. — Seeking to ensure that Delaware does not reinstitute strident COVID-19 restrictions imposed at the outset of the pandemic, The Rutherford Institute is asking a federal court to reject the governor’s motion to dismiss a First Amendment lawsuit safeguarding churches from being unfairly discriminated against in their efforts to worship in accordance with their religious beliefs. In a brief filed with the U.S. District Court for Delaware, Rutherford Institute attorneys argue that Gov. John Carney’s decision to rescind unconstitutional rules in response to the lawsuit should not end the lawsuit because rules restricting gatherings and other religious practices could be reimposed by the governor. 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 believed the state’s restrictions were too intrusive, overstepping the wall of separation between church and state.
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.
“The government shouldn’t be in the business of micromanaging churches,” said constitutional attorney John W. Whitehead, president of The Rutherford Institute and author of Battlefield America: The War on the American People. “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 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. In asking that the lawsuit not be dismissed, Institute attorneys argue that a court declaration is needed to prevent the governor from reinstituting unconstitutional policies once the lawsuit is ended, pointing out that the governor continues to defend those policies as legal.
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.