More sheriffs comment on worship restrictions

Harnett County Sheriff Wayne Coats

RALEIGH — Harnett County Sheriff Wayne Coats has joined other sheriffs, district attorneys and county leaders in refusing to arrest those who attend church in his county.

In a Facebook post this afternoon, Coats said he wanted to make his position “perfectly clear” and that he would not be sending any officers to “unconstitutionally order that you disperse” from a church or house of worship in his county.


Officials and law enforcement in the town of Columbus as well as in Johnston and Randolph Counties have all issued similar statements and are refusing to arrest, cite or prosecute those attending indoor religious services.

Coats said he had no wish to undermine the governor or his order, but that he would protect the constitutional right to assemble in a church.

The full post is available on his Facebook page.

Elsewhere, Durham County Sheriff Clarence Birkhead’s office responded to an inquiry by saying “The Durham County sheriff’s office has an excellent working relationship with many pastors across the county.”

The sheriff’s office spokesperson continued “In the early stages of the COVID-19 outbreak, Sheriff Clarence Birkhead met with the leadership of the IMA (Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance of Durham and Vicinity) and spoke with other religious leaders individually about how to responsibly carry out church services.  There have not been any issues among Durham County’s religious community and we do not anticipate any as we move forward with the Governor’s phased opening approach.”

Yancey County Sheriff Gary Banks has also issued a statement indicating he will not interfere with Yancey County citizens’ right to worship.  Banks’ statement said he recognizes “the seriousness of the virus and the need to change the way we interact in our daily lives.” He went on to say that can be accomplished “without trampling on people’s First Amendment rights.”

“I at no time will interfere with anyone’s First Amendment Right to the free exercise of worship in God’s House,” said Banks.

The sheriff of Halifax County is in agreement with other sheriff’s speaking out.

I agree with my fellow Sheriffs, Chip Hughes and Steve Bizzell, I will not interfere or interrupt any in-house worship services,” said Halifax Sheriff Wes Tripp in a Facebook post. “I have full confidence that our church attendees will practice what is safe for their individual health and welfare. I will not stand in the way of peaceful assembly, of Christians of like precious faith.”

Sheriffs from both Moore and Rockingham Counties have also weighed in.

I have been asked by many recently about where I stand when it comes to our churches being able to hold services. I believe with all my heart that with what we are facing in this world today, we need God in our lives now more than ever,” wrote Sheriff Ronnie Fields on the department’s Facebook page. “As such, it is my personal belief that our people should be able to assemble and worship in the house of the Lord whenever they wish.”

Fields wrote that “Neither I nor any member of the Moore County Sheriff’s Office will interfere with or attempt to disrupt any worship service in this county.”

Rockingham County Sheriff also issued a statement through it’s Facebook page.

Sheriff Sam Page wrote that for the last two months the county’s pastors and church leaders “have respectfully followed the North Carolina Governor’s authority regarding the restrictions on holding indoor worship services.”

“During this time, however; some retail businesses across North Carolina have been allowed to operate daily under a different set of rules,” wrote Sheriff Page. “In my opinion, this different set of standards imposed on houses of worship are unfair. Churches should not be treated differently than other establishments where people are allowed to gather.”

Page said he trusts the citizens and pastors in his county to do what is necessary to stay safe and that he will not order any of his officers to interfere in worship activities.

“As the Sheriff of Rockingham County, neither my deputies nor I will violate our Oath and interfere or prevent church goers in exercising their Constitutional right to gather and freely worship as established in the First Amendment,” wrote Page.

As of Friday, May 15, statements from sheriff’s supporting the right to worship unfettered have been issued by Craven, Johnston, Halifax, Harnett, Moore, Rockingham and Yancey.

About A.P. Dillon 1342 Articles
A.P. Dillon is a North State Journal reporter located near Raleigh, North Carolina. Find her on Twitter: @APDillon_