Maine Church Case Goes to SCOTUS

Mar 22, 2021

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Liberty Counsel has filed a petition for cert asking the U.S. Supreme Court to review the federal lawsuit of Calvary Chapel of Bangor against Governor Janet Mills’ unconstitutional orders against churches. Governor Mills allows churches to hold secular gatherings to feed, shelter, and to provide social services and counsel to an unlimited number of people. However, religious gatherings are limited to no more than 50 people despite the size of the building. 

Maine now has the most severe restrictions in the nation on places of worship with its 50-person numerical cap notwithstanding the size of the facility. 

In today’s brief, Calvary Chapel argues “If the ‘mild climate’ of California is an insufficient basis for permitting the Governor to force worshippers outside, then it is much more so the case in Maine where there is no such mild climate this time of year. In a country where religious exercise is a fundamental constitutional right, can the First Amendment really be thought to countenance the notion that religious congregants must brave freezing temperatures and driving snow to engage in that constitutional right? Surely not. The First Circuit’s decision telling Calvary Chapel to take its religious freedom outside has – quite literally – left them out in the cold in direct conflict with the decisions of this Court.” 

The lower courts have not taken seriously the irreparable harm caused by Gov. Mills’ unconstitutional COVID restrictions on houses of worship. When Calvary Chapel of Bangor filed its lawsuit last May, the governor’s orders permitted no religious gatherings, including parking lot services, and violations carried criminal penalties of up to six months in jail and a $1,000 fine. After Liberty Counsel filed suit, she said at some point in the future she would allow very limited worship, but only after churches applied to re-open, were approved, and displayed a badge on the building. 

Following the decisions of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals and the Supreme Court in South Bay United Pentecostal Church and Harvest Rock Church, striking down the numeric restrictions (Ninth Circuit) and the total ban on worship (Supreme Court), Maine now has the most severe restrictions in the nation on places of worship. 

Even before the Supreme Court’s ruling in South Bay and Harvest Rock Church, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals struck down Nevada’s 50-person numeric limit.

On Thanksgiving Eve, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of New York City synagogues and Roman Catholic churches in Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn v. Cuomo and Agudath Israel v. Cuomo, thus eliminating the 10- and 25-person numerical caps. In this decision Justice Gorsuch wrote, “There is no world in which the Constitution tolerates color-coded executive edicts that open liquor stores and bike shops but shutter churches, synagogues, and mosques.” Last December, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of Calvary Chapel Dayton Valley and Calvary Chapel Lone Mountain in their lawsuits against Nevada Governor Steve Sisolak’s unconstitutional 50-person worship bans. On February 6, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of Liberty Counsel clients Harvest Rock Church and Harvest International Ministry against California Governor Gavin Newsom’s total ban on indoor worship.  In the opinion, Justice Gorsuch, joined by Thomas and Alito, in which Barrett and Kavanaugh concurred, wrote: “Today’s order should have been needless; the lower courts in these cases should have followed the extensive guidance this Court already gave.” 

Ken Graves is the founding and senior pastor of Calvary Chapel of Bangor. The church also has the Calvary Residential Discipleship (CRD) program, a biblical-based ministry that helps men and women who are seeking a way of escape from drugs, alcohol, and other life-controlling issues. The year-long residential program operates two homes, one with 24 women and one with 24 men, for a total of 48 full-time residents on the church property. CRD is a Christ-centered alternative to secular programs within the drug and alcohol community and includes a work program, daily Bible studies, devotional readings, and prayer. Regular attendance at church services is paramount to this program. Therefore, there will always be a minimum of 48 students at worship services on any given Sunday and Wednesday. When combined with Pastor Graves, the staff of seven or eight, and the other pastors, the governor’s orders preclude Calvary Chapel’s CRD residents from worshipping in the church. They can meet for substance abuse counseling that does not involve Bible studies and worship, but as soon as they worship, the assembly is illegal. 

Governor Mills has deemed certain commercial and non-religious businesses so-called “essential” to include liquor stores, marijuana dispensaries, warehouse clubs, “big box” and “supercenter” stores that accommodate large gatherings of people. These organizations were never threatened with criminal sanctions, and people still may gather in these venues without restrictions. Other exempted businesses also include transportation facilities, bus stations, train stations, airports, manufacturing facilities, gas stations, laundromats, industrial manufacturing, post offices and shipping outlets, financial payment, clearing, and settlement operations, legal, business, and professional services. 

Liberty Counsel Founder and Chairman Mat Staver said, “The U.S. Supreme Court has already ruled against these unconstitutional worship bans, and Governor Janet Mills has continued her draconian restrictions against churches and places of worship. The High Court now must end Governor Mills’ unconstitutional actions once and for all.” 

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