DOVER, Del. (ChurchMilitant.com) - Delaware is backing down on COVID-19 restrictions after a challenge by religious leaders.
Democratic governor John Carney is now backing off restrictions he imposed on worship services in the midst of the epidemic — rather than face a federal lawsuit challenging those restrictions as unconstitutional. Delaware will no longer impose any mandatory pandemic restrictions on houses of worship beyond those that are generally applicable to other secular entities.
State attorneys told a federal judge in a letter Wednesday that the "guidance" Carney had issued for worship services has been "expressly revoked" by new guidance issued Tuesday by public health officials. This new guidance is meant to serve only as "a helpful aid" for churches and other houses of worship.
The concession comes in the wake of a First Amendment lawsuit filed by attorneys of The Rutherford Institute, a nonprofit organization dedicated to defending human rights and civil liberties. The case, Rev. Dr. Christopher Allen Bullock v. Gov. John C. Carney, challenges the way state governments have subjected churches to a more strident virus restriction code than for big shopping stores, liquor stores and guns shops.
The latest state guidance issued by the Delaware governor's office on June 2 removes all prior prohibitions and mandatory restrictions on church gatherings, replacing them with recommendations. Churches may decide whether or not to use them as they determine how best to safely minister to their congregants.
"The government shouldn't be in the business of micromanaging churches," said constitutional attorney John W. Whitehead, president of The Rutherford Institute and author of Battlefield America: The War on the American People. "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," he said.
Thomas Neuberger, an attorney for Rev. Bullock who filed the lawsuit, said he was "cautiously optimistic" but is pressing for a permanent injunction that would prohibit future government interference in religious worship — particularly if there is a second wave of the Wuhan virus later this year. Bullock is a Baptist minister.
Along with Bullock, other Protestants have taken action against unfair COVID-19 restrictions. Pastors in North Carolina filed a lawsuit against their governor, for example, and Pentecostal pastor Jerry Waldrop of Holly Springs, Mississippi saw his church firebombed after defying state orders to shut down.
Catholic clergy, meanwhile, have been relatively absent in taking on the state over unfair COVID-19 restrictions. With the exception of the Catholic bishops in Minnesota and a rare lone voice here and there, Catholic clerics have been largely silent. In fact, observers suggest that most seemed to want to cooperate with anything the state was willing to mandate for the Church in the name of keeping people healthy.
Internationally, the pope made a statement urging Catholics to obey civil law regulations. Similarly, Vatican cardinal João Braz de Aviz penned a letter to women and men religious around the world encouraging them to obey both civil and ecclesial authorities relating to virus restrictions.
Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò wrote a letter last month as a worldwide appeal to Catholics and people of goodwill to be diligent in holiness and awareness of how secular authorities may be using the Wuhan crisis to persecute the Church in a new world order that could restrict natural freedoms for all.