WILMINGTON – Lots of churches are improvising during the height of social distancing mandates due to the coronavirus pandemic. Restrictions on crowd sizes and social distancing requirements make traditional Easter services infeasible, leading many congregations to arrange for ‘drive in’ Easter services. Simple; drive in, stay in your car, and still get the Easter sermon alongside your neighbors and friends. Just, at a safe distance.
The Wilmington Police Department, though, decided such a service was a violation of Governor Roy Cooper’s ‘Stay-at-Home’ order, and sent out word that drive-n services were banned if they exceeded more than 10 people.
Even though they’re not leaving their cars. It’s yet another example of how these one-size-fits-all shutdown policies leave room for plenty of local ridiculousness, and some lawyers think it’s totally unconstitutional, and even contradicts the governor’s clarification about such services.
Attorneys at Coastal Legal Counsel issued a press release Thursday afternoon offering an opinion on the city’s decision and deeming it potentially unconstitutional.
“On Wednesday, April 8, 2020, the Wilmington Police Department issued a statement concerning drive-in worship services for all area churches stating that Governor Roy Cooper’s current Executive Order and local Declarations prohibit drive-in worship services. We believe this statement is not an accurate representation of the Governor’s current Executive Order. In a letter sent to the North Carolina Sheriffs’ Association on March 31, 2020, Governor Cooper stated that drive-in worship gatherings ‘appear to be acceptable as long as individuals remain in their vehicles and avoid contact.’
As attorneys, we believe that the City’s attempt to prohibit drive-in worship services is a violation of each citizen’s civil rights under the First and Fourth Amendments to the United States Constitution (“Constitution”) as made applicable to the States by the Fourteenth Amendment. The First Amendment to the Constitution ensures that the Government will make no law prohibiting the free exercise of religion. A proscription against the freedom to exercise religion safely from inside your motor vehicle is in direct violation of the Constitution.
It also contradicts the information provided by our Governor to our sheriffs across the State. To further confound the molestation of our citizens’ Constitutional rights, the prohibition on drive-in worship services will be enforced by unreasonable government seizures carried out by the hands of our local police. The U.S. Supreme Court has held that being pulled over or stopped by the police without evidence that an actual crime or violation has been committed is a government seizure in violation of the Constitution. In light of Governor Cooper’s statement on this issue, we believe that using the Wilmington Police Department to stop random citizens from worshiping safely from their vehicles and potentially arresting them is unconstitutional.”
There is a lot of room for interpretation in a statewide ban on gatherings of more than 10 people, but on this issue in particular the governor clarified that it should be okay. (Gee thanks, Gov)
The challenge of the ‘drive-in services’ ban in Wilmington is only one of multiple constitutional challenges being filed against shutdown policies by local governments. Several non-residents with property in Dare County at suing over that municipality’s draconian blocking off of access to anyone without a permanent residence of job on the Outer Banks.
You can read further about the Wilmington Police Department’s ban on drive-in services, and the constitutional challenge, here.