Maine church asks Supreme Court to scrap COVID-era worship service restrictions
Calvary Chapel of Bangor is concerned COVID-19 delta variant could lead to reinstatement of tougher restrictions
A Maine church is asking the Supreme Court to block restrictions against houses of worship during the coronavirus pandemic, claiming that limiting its ability to hold religious services while exempting other activities and businesses for being "essential" violates its rights under the free exercise clause of the First Amendment.
In a petition filed Wednesday, the Calvary Chapel of Bangor referenced other cases in which the Supreme Court has sided with religious organizations who pushed back against similar restrictions.
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"Despite the abundant precedent from this Court, Maine ignored it all and continued to impose discriminatory and unconstitutional restrictions on religious worship services long after it became clear they were unconstitutional," the church said in its petition. "In fact, even after all of the various restrictions had been enjoined or rescinded, Maine maintained the dubious distinction of imposing the most severe restrictions in the nation on places of worship."
Earlier in the pandemic, the church recalled, Gov. Janet Mills prohibited all gatherings for religious services at houses of worship before eventually allowing them – first capped at 10 people, then 50, then five people for every 1,000 square feet, which was still 50 for the Calvary Chapel. While the toughest restrictions are no longer in place, the church is worried that that they could be reinstated due to concerns over the COVID-19 delta variant.
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"Thus, the continuing threat posed to Calvary Chapel’s cherished constitutional liberties remains omnipresent and seemingly unending," the church claimed. "The fact that the Governor is already raising the alarm over the new variants and her continued power to reinstate her prior restrictions at any time demonstrates the continuing need for injunctive relief from this Court."
A spokesperson for the Maine Attorney General's office said in a statement that the issue is moot because the limit on gatherings was lifted months ago.
"For more than two months, there have been no restrictions whatsoever on the size of gatherings, and the state of emergency expired at the end of June," the spokesperson said. "Given that, we are disappointed that Calvary Chapel continues to waste public and judicial resources by attempting to litigate an issue that is now moot."
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At one point, the church stated, there were 44 categories of businesses exempt from the state restrictions, including marijuana dispensaries. Highlighting the alleged unfairness, the church noted that there is no cap on the number of people who are allowed to participate in charitable activities in the church's building, yet religious services are restricted.
The church pointed to other cases in which the Supreme Court blocked restrictions in states such as California and New York, where religious services were limited while other activities were exempt. It is asking the Supreme Court to, at the very least, vacate lower court decisions against it and send the case back down to be reconsidered in light of the other states' cases.