RALEIGH — On Friday, Gov. Roy Cooper issued his second executive order of the week related to COVID-19. That order, E.O. 117, instituted school closures across the state through March 30, 2020.
The order also prohibited “mass gatherings” which the order defined as “any event or convening that brings together more than one hundred (100) persons in a single room or single space at the same time.”
The order relies on N.C.G.S. 166A-19.30(b)(3) as the authority for the order on mass gatherings. That statute, says the Governor has the power “To regulate and control the flow of vehicular and pedestrian traffic, the congregation of persons in public places or buildings, lights and noises of all kinds, and the maintenance, extension, and operation of public utility and transportation services and facilities.”
In an e-mail to the state’s sheriffs, N.C. Sheriffs Association executive director Eddie Caldwell shared guidance from Jane Ammons Gilchrist, general counsel to the N.C. Department of Public Safety.
In that e-mail, Caldwell said that questions had arisen about whether section 1a of Cooper’s executive order applied to churches. The e-mail included a four-paragraph “clarification” from the DPS lawyer. In the included guidance, Gilchrist said “If a church gathering [or a funeral, whether at a church or elsewhere] has a coordinated event or convening of more than 100 persons, that would be prohibited under 1a.”
Several churches across the state, including the Raleigh Diocese of the Catholic church, cited the executive order as the reason for cancellation of weekend services.
“I have concerns about whether this order relates to churches, given the unequivocal language of Article I Section 13 of the N.C. Constitution and the fact that the statute cited deals with public places,” said Andy Gregson, district attorney in Randolph County. “I know of no case law which would make a church a public place.”
Article I, Section 13 of the N.C. Constitution says, “All persons have a natural and inalienable right to worship Almighty God according to the dictates of their own consciences, and no human authority shall, in any case whatever, control or interfere with the rights of conscience.”
“My own pastor has inquired about this issue,” said Gregson. “I am reaching out to local law enforcement to discuss this further.”
North State Journal reached out to Gilchrist for clarification on the scope of the Executive Order and she has not yet responded. In addition, the Governor’s general counsel and press office were also contacted for clarification of the “mass gathering” section of Cooper’s executive order. This article will be updated when Governor Cooper’s administration responds.