Berger, Lawmakers Decry Cooper’s ‘Absurd’ Church Ruling

RALEIGH – One of the flash points amid Governor Roy Cooper’s lockdown edicts has been the nonsensical, and unconstitutional treatment of worship services with regard to social distancing closures. In-person church services have been all but banned by Cooper’s orders, but the same restrictions do not apply to myriad other entities that host gatherings of people. Under the order a church is even treated differently than…itself. A funeral service allows for five times the capacity than allowed for a regular church service even when they would be in the exact same church and setting.

Senator Phil Berger and other lawmakers think it is absurd, and they’re calling for immediate rectification. In a statement released on Medium, Berger painted a picture of just how absurd Cooper’s church ruling is.

“Below are the three absurd realities that North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper has brought about by Executive Order:

    • By order of the State, enclosed buildings that house commercial establishments may operate at 50 percent occupancy.
    • By order of the State, identical buildings that hold worship services may only operate at a capacity of 10 people — unless there is a dead body inside the building, at which time the house of worship may operate with 50 people.
    • By order of the state, an unspecified religious service may operate at full capacity if that religion’s rules require indoor meetings of more than 10 people in the same room, which means the State is deciding which religions may worship freely and which may not.

In a joint statement, Senators Kathy Harrington (R-Gaston) and Carl Ford (R-Rowan) said, “Gov. Cooper’s absurd state order is unconstitutional on two grounds: it treats churches differently than commercial establishments, and it treats some religions differently than others. It’s plainly unconstitutional.”

Sens. Harrington and Ford continued, “Gov. Cooper’s order also has content-based restrictions: The Governor has prevented more than 10 people from meeting in a chapel for a worship service, but he simultaneously allows 50 people to meet in that same chapel in the same pews if the worship service involves a funeral. There is no health and safety distinction between these two gatherings in the same chapel. It is a content-based restriction on the free exercise of religion, and it is unconstitutional.” […]

The statement then offers background on how persistently lawmakers have been asking the governor to address the unconstitutional inconsistencies.

“On May 5, 2020, Gov. Roy Cooper issued Executive Order 138, which orders church services larger than 10 people “shall take place outdoors unless impossible.”

On May 8, 2020, eighteen senators asked Gov. Cooper to define “impossible.” On the same day, the N.C. Sheriffs’ Association passed a resolution criticizing the Governor’s order for worship service rules that are “significantly more restrictive than the restrictions on ‘retail businesses’” and asking that he amend the order.

On May 11, 2020, Gov. Cooper responded to the senators by issuing additional guidance. That guidance states: “Worship services…may take place indoors with 10 or fewer people in attendance.”

The guidance then defines impossible as: “…situations in which particular religious beliefs dictate that some or all of a religious service must be held indoors and that more than 10 persons must be in attendance.” Therefore, the orders of the State make it clear that worship services may not be held inside if more than 10 people attend, except for an unspecified religion with established rules requiring indoor meetings.

The state of North Carolina is deciding which religions may practice freely and which may not.

The guidance further states: “Up to 50 people may attend a funeral indoors.”

Gov. Cooper’s Executive Order 138 treats non-religious establishments differently. Retail stores, for example, may hold congregations “not more than 50% of state fire capacity.” Therefore, in two neighboring buildings of identical size, the house of worship is limited to 10 occupants while the retail establishment may hold dozens or hundreds.”

Yes, ‘absurd’ seems to be an accurate term to use here. ‘Dangerous’, ‘tyrannical’, and ‘unacceptable’ would also be fitting. There is no way such an uneven treatment of churches, or any other entities for that matter, is acceptable under the principles of our Constitutions. An unfortunate effect of the pandemic panic, however, has been an accelerated, and at times enthusiastic, disregard for the Constitution and the precepts that form the American idea by politicians that seem to believe it is secondary to what they believe to be the collective good.

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