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Restrictions on Indoor Religious Services in North Carolina Temporarily Blocked by Federal Court

By Nathan Ham

North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper’s order limiting indoor church and religious gatherings has been temporarily blocked by Judge James C. Dever III until a hearing on May 29.

As part of the Phase 1 reopening of North Carolina, Gov. Cooper’s executive order restricted all indoor religious gatherings to no more than 10 people. Outdoor church services are permitted as long as proper social distancing measures are in place.

The lawsuit, filed by Berean Baptist Church, Return America, Inc., Dr. Ronnie Baity, and People’s Baptist Church, Inc., claims that Gov. Cooper’s restrictions on indoor church services violate the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment.

Ford Porter, the spokesperson for Gov. Cooper, issued the following statement following the court ruling: “We don’t want indoor meetings to become hotspots for the virus and our health experts continue to warn that large groups sitting together inside for long periods of time are much more likely to cause the spread of COVID-19. While our office disagrees with the decision, we will not appeal, but instead, urge houses of worship and their leaders to voluntarily follow public health guidance to keep their members safe.”

Senior Pastor James D. Gailliard of Word Tabernacle Church in Rocky Mount penned the following opinion piece on why church buildings should not be reopened just yet:

Over 500 years ago, Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the castle church in Wittenburg igniting what we know as the Protestant Reformation. Two thousand years ago an innocent man was crucified outside the city on a hill called Golgotha paving the way for all of mankind to be saved. The two most significant acts of the Christian church both occurred outside the church building. Not to mention, the Apostle Paul spent most of his ministry physically distanced from those he repeatedly expressed he longed to see. Yet, somehow, churches were planted and the New Testament was written. Buildings are important, but they are not to be worshipped. The notion that Christians cannot worship without assembling together in a building is flawed both scripturally and historically. 

The recent lawsuit filed in Greenville federal court blocking the Governor’s Executive Order restricting indoor religious services asserts that churches are being treated differently than retailers and other secular businesses. Well, churches are different. Churches should have stricter re-opening guidelines than restaurants or hair salons for the simple fact that we gather far more people in close contact for longer periods of time. Reduced to the lowest common denominator, the church gathers people. We refer to our memberships as “congregations”, “fellowships”, “assemblies”. The typical church gathers 10-100 times the people of any other community-based business and North Carolina has more churches than any other state in America except Texas and Florida.  

More importantly, churches are the only community-based business with the mission to love our neighbors. One infected person in a gathering of even 100 people puts at risk an entire community. This is not loving. It is especially not loving to African Americans who are disproportionately impacted by this disease. Churches continue to worship and develop disciples – virtually. In many situations, churches are growing. Our first amendment rights have not been violated.

So, while God has allowed for this season of evangelism, racial reconciliation, and innovation, the response has become- “let’s sue.”

Churches that open too quickly are treading on dangerous ground. Each congregation should assess within their local church context, “what is our real motivation for opening now?” If it’s because of money, then I would remind you of Jesus’ words in Matthew 6:24 – “No one can serve two masters…” If it’s because of loyalty to conservative ideology, political party, or race, then consider Colossians 3:3 “…your life is now hidden with Christ.” 

These are hard times for us all and we need the church more now than ever. I too am eager to hug our members again; I just want to have as many of them alive as possible to hug.