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Federal judge denies pastor's request for temporary order to lift worship restrictions

Delaware Public Media

A federal judge rejected a pastor request for a temporary restraining order to lift parts of Delaware’s COVID-10 restrictions on communities of worship.

U.S. District Judge Colm Connolly issued his ruling late Friday night, offering two reasons for turning down the request.

He says granting Rev. Christopher Bullock’s request would in practice limit, not expand his rights and that Bullock had not shown “irreparable harm” would be done without the restraining order.

Connolly notes Bullock’s request sought a return to the status quo of May 13th.  But Connolly says at that time churches would have been limited 10 people per service - and current guidance allows services with up to 30% of fire code occupancy limit and drive-in and outdoor religious services for an unlimited number of congregants. 

"Counsel's proposed definition of status quo is not the existing state of affairs but instead the state of affairs he believes Dr. Bullock is entitled to under the Constitution and which he hopes to achieve with this lawsuit-that is, a state of affairs in which religious organizations are treated the same as the other 23 7 businesses deemed essential by the Governor in the Fourth Modification. That state of affairs, however, did not exist as of May 13th, when Dr. Bullock first objected to the status quo," Connolly wrote.

Connolly also ruled Bullock’s complaint offers no proof of “irreparable harm” being created by limits on distributing communion and requirements that pastors wear a mask while preaching and not hold a person during a baptism.

"The Verified Complaint alleges that Dr. Bullock's church celebrates a communion service "once a month" and holds baptisms "on a quarterly basis." But there is nothing in the Verified Complaint or in any affidavit submitted by Dr. Bullock to show that Dr. Bullock's church intended to serve communion or hold a baptism this coming Sunday, let alone that the church or its congregants would be harmed if communion service or a baptism did not occur this coming Sunday. Nor is there any suggestion in the Verified Complaint or evidence in the record to establish that Dr. Bullock would be irreparably harmed if required to preach this Sunday wearing a mask," wote Connolly.

But Connolly add this ruling does not reflect on the overall merits of Bullock’s case which brings up the question balancing religious rights with the state’s right to protect public health.

"My decision today has no bearing on the merits of Dr. Bullock's claims. Those claims implicate one of our most treasured rights protected by the Constitution-the right to exercise freely one's religion. And they implicate as well the fundamental right of a state "to protect itself against an epidemic of disease which threatens the safety of its members."These important principles make this an important case, and my decision today will afford me the opportunity to give the case the considered reflection it deserves," Connolly wrote.

When asked about the case at his Friday press briefing, before the decision was made, Gov. Carney defended his policy.

"Our focus was never on controlling religous practice," Carey said Friday afternoon. "Actually, just the opposite, [it is] enabling religious practice in a time when public health is a great concern."

Carney added one of his major concerns is that many congregants are older and especialy vulnerable to COVID-19.  He also noted that he has talked to many religious leaders about the situation in recent weeks and most have expressed they understand the need for the limitations in place.

"Just about everyone, other than some that I have read about in the newspaper, were very cautious and understood that their obligation was not just a spiritual one, but one of physical health as well," said Carney.

Bullock’s attorneys have appealed the ruling to the U.S. Third Circuit Court of Appeals, seeking an immediate ruling.


Reopen Church Opinion by Delaware Public Media on Scribd

Tom Byrne has been a fixture covering news in Delaware for nearly three decades. He joined Delaware Public Media in 2010 as our first news director and has guided the news team ever since. When he's not covering the news, he can be found reading history or pursuing his love of all things athletic.
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