On The Front Lines
Rutherford Institute Sues Delaware for Overstepping First Amendment Restrictions, Meddling in Church Affairs and Violating Religious Freedom
WILMINGTON, Del. — Taking issue with 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 Rutherford Institute is asking a federal court to ensure that churches are not being unfairly discriminated against in their efforts to worship in accordance with their religious beliefs. In a First Amendment lawsuit filed in the U.S. District Court for Delaware, Rutherford Institute attorneys argue that Gov. John Carney’s state of emergency orders restricting indoor gatherings deprive Delaware churches of the equal protection of the law. 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 are 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.
“This isn’t 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 legal advice regarding 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. Bullock noted that online worship services are a poor substitute for the fellowship, preaching, and power of the black church worship experience. In a revised order issued on May 18, Gov. Carney somewhat relaxed restrictions on religious institutions, limiting the length of worship services to one hour, and limiting 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. However, as the lawsuit points out, Gov. Carney’s orders do not go far enough in ensuring that churches are treated equally under the law and their First Amendment rights respected. Moreover, the state’s guidelines can be problematic for some churches: as Bullock points out, some African American preachers take an hour just to get started. The lawsuit is asking the court to allow churches to open up for worship by the Feast of Pentecost on May 31.
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.