Group plans to sue Cooper over church limits

Return America says the governor's orders put unconstiutional limits on worship

Pastor Ron Baity (Center), president of Return America, at a rally at the N.C. State Capitol Building in Raleigh.

RALEIGH — A group founded by pastors and churches plans to sue Gov. Roy Cooper over his executive orders which they say violate the U.S. and N.C. constitutions.

Return America is a non-profit group with a mission to educate, motivate and mobilize citizens to promote Judeo-Christian values and to educate and influence government on the founding principles the state and nation, according to its website.

In a press release, the group said the goal of the lawsuit is to convince Cooper “that churches need the freedom to exercise the rights already given unto them in the First Amendment of our United States Constitution and our North Carolina State Constitution.” They say that Cooper should allow churches the same freedom as businesses. “He has curtailed church assembling and limited attendance to a maximum of no more than ten people per service,” said Pastor Ron Baity, president of Return America, in the release. “At the same time, he has allowed ABC stores, abortion centers, hardware stores, Wal-Mart stores, vapor shops, NASCAR, and others to operate at much larger capacities. This is discrimination against the church!”

The lawsuit announcement comes the same week the N.C. Sheriffs’ Association passed an executive committee resolution calling on Cooper to amend his executive orders to allow indoor church services and to impose limits on worship that is “no more stringent than those that apply to businesses that are allowed to remain open.”

Return America is represented by David C. Gibbs Jr. of the Christian Law Association. On April 22, 2020,Restore America sent a letter to Cooper alleging that his executive order “unconstitutionally restricts churches’ freedom to assemble.” That letter was signed by 195 pastors and according to the group, Cooper did not respond to the letter.

Cooper’s general counsel William C. McKinney did respond to another church, Sovereign Redeemer Community Church in Youngsville, which had sought clarification on the Governor’s orders related to worship and non-retail gatherings. In his letter, McKinney said that the Governor’s orders “account for and continue to accommodate the fundamental rights and liberties of North Carolinians.” McKinney also said the orders were a “generally applicable limitation on mass gatherings” and that indoor worship services of more than ten people were prohibited because they involved “people who are otherwise in close proximity and relatively stationary for extended periods.”

In Executive Order No. 138, Cooper announced that he would allow worship services outside without a limit of 10. According to McKinney’s May 1, 2020 letter, those outdoor worship services were allowed under the previous orders. The order also exempted worship and “First Amendment activities” from the mass gathering definition, which limits indoor gatherings to no more than ten people. The order goes on to say that worship must be outside unless it’s “impossible” to have outside.

Return America is planning a news conference at the Legislative Building in Raleigh on Thursday, May 14 at 11 am. The group says Gibbs will explain the lawsuit at the event. Baity is encouraging pastors from across the state to attend the event and encourage their congregations to drive to Raleigh in in support of the lawsuit. The group has organized other rallies in Raleigh, including ones in support of HB2 and the Defense of Marriage Amendment.

“Never since we officially became a nation in 1776 have we experienced an almost total shutdown of our churches,” said Baity. “This must never happen again.”