RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) – Religious leaders filed a lawsuit Thursday that said they want to have worship services inside but an executive order is preventing that from happening.
The leaders said Gov. Roy Cooper’s COVID-19 executive order violates their constitutional rights.
As part of phase one of the state’s reopening, which we’re in now, gatherings of more than 10 people are not allowed – and that includes indoor worship services.
Despite the indoor limit, there’s no limit on people attending services outside as long as they maintain social distancing of at least six feet.
A group called Return America filed the lawsuit. They said it has the support of more than 200 religious leaders across the state.
The group has argued that it’s wrong for the governor to allow stores to reopen at 50-percent capacity but not allow houses of worship to do the same.
“And, I’m not making fun of this. I realize it’s serious. I realize many people have lost their lives. And, we’re going back, not in a slipshod way. We’re going back in very sanitary conditions,” said Dr. Ron Baity, president of Return America. “We love our people. We don’t want our people harmed. We don’t want our people to catch this. They may catch it out in the public. They may go to the grocery store and catch it. That potential is true anywhere. But, as we go back, we’re going back very carefully.”
Gov. Roy Cooper spoke about the issue Thursday, saying he’s concerned the indoor services could pose a greater risk for people transmitting the virus than holding services outside.
“The executive orders have been drawn carefully to recognize First Amendment protections, but let’s look at the bottom line here. We don’t want our churches to become hotspots for this virus,” said Cooper. “Sitting or standing indoors for more than ten minutes, we greatly increase the chances of passing to each other a virus that can be deadly.”
Johnston County Sheriff Steve Bizzell released a statement on Wednesday pushing back against the executive order.
Bizzell has been the face of Johnston County law enforcement for 22 years.
In a statement, Bizzell said he would lay down his badge and go home before stopping the citizens of the county from assembling for an indoor church service.
He wrote, “the deputies and I took an oath that we would endeavor to support, maintain and defend the Constitution. As long as I’m Sheriff, my deputies nor I will forgo that oath and interfere or prevent churchgoers to peaceably assemble. Before I would do that I would lay down my badge and go home.”
Cooper has said that people being inside, stationary, and near one another for a long period of time means there’s a higher risk of transmitting COVID-19.
An attorney from the Christian Law Association said he filed the lawsuit this morning in federal court.
It’s not clear how soon a judge will consider the case.
Some pastors say they disagree with the idea of holding indoor services now, calling that an unnecessary risk.
“I’m thinking about ‘love your neighbor as yourself’ more than I am about gathering together in one place,” said Rev. Nancy Petty, senior pastor of Pullen Memorial Baptist Church in Raleigh.
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