RALEIGH — A federal judge halted enforcement of part Gov. Roy Cooper’s Stay at home orders Saturday. The ruling came less than 48 hours after a group, led by several pastors, filed suit Thursday alleging their first amendment rights were infringed by Cooper’s orders. Cooper’s office immediately said they disagreed with the ruling but won’t appeal.
“There is no pandemic exception to the Constitution of the United States or the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment,” said U.S. District Court Judge James C. Dever in his ruling.
Dever also said restrictions placed on religious groups in the governor’s orders “represent precisely the sort of “subtle departures from neutrality” that the Free Exercise Clause is designed to prevent.”
“The Governor appears to trust citizens to perform non-religious activities indoors (such as shopping or working or selling merchandise) but does not trust them to do the same when they worship indoors together,” Dever wrote.
“God is so good! A stay has been put in place. This means that churches may go back into their houses of worship until the actual case is heard on May 29 at 10:00 AM,” said the statement on the Return America website, one of the plaintiffs in the suit. “We are thankful that the constitution is being protected. We are hopeful that the governor will immediately correct his Executive Orders to align themselves with this stay.”
“We are very appreciative that the judge has ruled that our First Amendment rights are in place again,” said Dr. Ron Baity, President of the Board of Return America. “We were concerned when they were literally taken from us.”
“We are grateful that what our forefathers put in place to give us freedom of religion has been put back in place,” Baity said.
Baity said he believes the different treatment of businesses and churches was a major factor in the court’s decision
“When you confine the church to ten [people] max and you can have 50 people in a funeral home, you know the question comes up, ‘why is a person safer in a funeral home than a church?'” said Baity.
“Today’s decision is a victory for the Constitutional guarantee to freedom of worship. Gov. Cooper cannot treat retailers and ABC stores one way and houses of worship another,” Senator Warren Daniel (R-Burke), co-chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. “Nor can he allow one type of worship service to proceed while prohibiting another. Hopefully, this decision will put some guardrails on what has been unchecked executive power.”
Similarly, Republican Congressman Dan Bishop, a lawyer who represents the ninth district, approved of the ruling.
“Governor Cooper’s targeting of North Carolinians of faith, foot-dragging in reopening our state, and utter dismantling of our economy has made his response to the coronavirus among the most extreme in the entire country. Today’s ruling confirmed it’s even worse than that – an unlawful trampling of our constitutional right to exercise our faith in God,” said Bishop.
Bishop was in attendance at the April 28 ReOpen NC protest, which was the third of five such protests held so far in Raleigh. While there, Bishop delivered a signed copy of the U.S. Constitution addressed to Cooper at the executive mansion.
“I applaud the court for rebuking Roy Cooper and restoring religious freedom for the people of North Carolina,” Bishop said.
Cooper responded to the ruling just as it was announced publicly through his spokesperson Ford Porter.
“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,” Porter said in the statement. “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.”