Following a pro-church Supreme Court ruling for California earlier this month, an evangelical church in Orrington, Maine, is renewing its fight against pandemic-related restrictions in that state. Calvary Chapel Bangor says in its new legal filing—a motion for injunctive relief—that Democratic Gov. Janet Mills has imposed “draconian and unconscionable restrictions on religious worship services while exempting myriad secular businesses and gatherings from similar restrictions.”
The independent church, which has been challenging worship restrictions throughout the pandemic, cites the 6-3 SCOTUS ruling on February 5 that lifted a ban against indoor worship in California. Justices did, however, permit officials there to cap gatherings at 25% capacity and to ban singing and chanting to prevent disease spread.
Pastor Ken Graves: Forced Choice Is ‘Unconscionable’
Maine recently replaced its 50-person limit on indoor gatherings with a guideline that’s the same for stores and churches: 50 people maximum or five people per 1,000 square feet (whichever is higher). But Calvary Chapel’s founder, Pastor Ken Graves, says that still limits his congregation to just 50 worshipers. Before the pandemic, its weekly services drew about 1,200 people.
Threatening churchgoers with fines puts them in a scary bind, Graves says. “In a country born on the desire to be free and with the right to worship fundamentally enshrined in our First Amendment,” says the pastor, “forcing such a Hobson’s choice is unconscionable and frightening.”
Calvary Chapel Bangor operates addiction-recovery programs and requires the 48 residents of its facilities to attend worship weekly. The church’s “fundamental and sincerely held religious beliefs compel [members] to gather together, to study the Bible together, to fellowship together, to pray for one another and with one another in person, to lay hands on the sick, to baptize, and to disciple the residents” of the recovery program, says Graves.
A decision on the motion is expected by the end of March.
Graves: Worship is ‘a spiritual necessity’
Calvary Chapel’s legal challenge began last spring, when Gov. Mills imposed a 10-person limit on gatherings. When about 75 worshipers met for an “illegal” outdoor service in May, Graves told them, “It is a spiritual necessity, whether our governor thinks so or not. It’s a spiritual necessity for us to come together, and it is the freedom to do that and the right to do that we stand—that we sit—for here today.”
Graves, who has questioned the coronavirus death count, accuses the government of overreacting. “Our energies should be focused on protecting the vulnerable,” he said in May. “Our government has determined instead to place the whole state under house arrest and has ordered you to become poorer in the name of protecting some.”
Maine’s Catholic leaders aren’t happy about the restrictions either. Last week, Bishop Robert Deeley of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland called the revised guideline “totally unacceptable,” saying it “does nothing to provide relief to our parishes and parishioners.” Deeley says he’d prefer a percentage model, citing nearby states that permit indoor services at 50% capacity. “It is difficult to understand [Maine’s] position when we have shown that we can successfully operate our churches and schools,” he adds.