RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) — North Carolina has become the latest state with church leaders filing lawsuits against a governor over social distancing orders.
CBS 17 News found eight other states where religious groups have sued either their states or governors, claiming their First Amendment rights are being violated by guidelines that limit crowd sizes during the coronavirus pandemic.
Nicole Ligon, an attorney and professor with the First Amendment Clinic at Duke University, says she expects those groups to have a hard time winning.
“I think that there’s going to be a slew of rulings that these are constitutional orders because these orders are content-neutral, meaning they’re not targeting any specific type of industry,” Ligon told CBS 17 News. “They’re viewpoint-neutral, so it’s not like people who are pro-stay-at-home orders can gather and people who are against stay-at-home orders can not. And I think there are alternative channels of communication.”
The trend spans the entire country — from California to Maine — with one common thread: The overwhelming majority of those governors are Democrats.
The lawsuit against Gov. Roy Cooper was filed Thursday in U.S. District Court in Greenville. Its four plaintiffs include Berean Baptist Church; Christian group Return America; Ronnie Baity, the group’s president and pastor of the Berean Bapist Church; and the People’s Baptist Church.
It challenges five of Cooper’s executive orders from between March 14 and May 5 and argues that they “treat religious gatherings less favorably than similar secular gatherings” and virtually ban religious assembly.
“You can’t target religious organizations because they’re religious organizations,” Ligon said. “You can set a content-neutral restriction and say that all organizations that happen to fall under this purview, that they can be regulated. And so religious organizations might fall under purview of, ‘We’re not going to allow for businesses that require people who are sitting in close proximity to each other to open, and we are going to allow for other types of organizations to open where those organizations or businesses allow for people to be moving about … It’s part of why we allow for churches to be having outdoor-space ceremonies or outdoor-space services.”
According to the Pew Research Center, 23 states — including North Carolina — and the District of Columbia allow religious gatherings to take place but only if the crowds are limited to 10 or fewer people.
“There is a significant government interest in protecting the public’s health, and when you have people who are six feet, less than six feet apart, and you have credible medical evidence that indicates that this is going to spread and this pandemic is really harmful to people and to society,” Ligon said. “So there’s a significant government interest that justifies these orders.”
Fifteen states have exempted churches from social distancing rules, including five in the Southeast — Arkansas, Tennessee, South Carolina, Georgia and Florida, according to Pew.
Groups across the country have used arguments similar to those now being used in North Carolina.
Three churches sued California Gov. Gavin Newsom over his stay-at-home order, saying religious services should be considered essential because of their importance to the “spiritual health of the congregation.”
A church in New Mexico sued the state after Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham said churches were no longer exempt from a rule limiting crowd sizes to five people.
And the U.S. Justice Department has sided with a Virginia church, filing a statement of support in its lawsuit against Gov. Ralph Northam.
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