On May 18, Gov. John Carney issued updated guidance for houses of worship on holding services during the state of emergency. The next morning a New Castle pastor, representing small Black churches, sued over the limits.
“Even though Carney’s emergency stay-at-home order never explicitly banned churches from holding services, the limit on gatherings to groups of 10 people or less effectively closed all houses of worship in the state,” WHYY reported then.
Last week, an attorney announced a settlement in the case, with an agreement that spells out seven things that can and cannot happen during this and any future declared state of emergency.
On Tuesday, Carney announced additional restrictions to combat the spread of COVID-19.
And at his weekly COVID-19 news conference that followed, the third question he was asked was how these latest restrictions mesh with the settlement.
“The agreement in the settlement was to not treat religious venues differently than others,” Carney said. “And this does not.”
Attorney Thomas S. Neuberger on Nov. 11 issued a statement for the Committee to Save Christmas and its member, the Rev. Christopher Bullock of Canaan Baptist Church.
“The parties have agreed to dismiss Bullock’s federal case, set for trial in September 2021 and, as his lawyers and the federal judge concluded, the governor in any future emergency now will be bound by the law found in the First Amendment and he always must treat churches and religious worship in a neutral manner, and in all instances only with rules of general applicability that apply to all citizens, not just churches.”
The terms of the settlement include:
• Use of the previous 10-person attendance limit in houses of worship is forbidden in the future, and if “essential businesses” or essential activities are in the future listed, churches will be included as “essential.”
• Restrictions solely applying to religious rituals such as baptism or communion are forbidden.
• No age-based attendance limits can be imposed solely on religious worship.
• Mask wearing and social distancing cannot be applied solely to church.
• No church can be limited to just one service a week.
• No limits on other use of its building can be imposed solely on churches, such as its other charitable ministries.
• No specific time limit on length of the service can be imposed solely on church use of its building.
“It’s time to move on,” Bullock told DelawareOnline. “We need to heal our country and heal our state, and the Church of Jesus Christ stands on a sure foundation.”
Large gatherings – religious and nonreligious – will continue to be a health concern. “Religious services we know are so incredibly important to people,” Dr. Karyl Rattay, director of the Delaware Division of Public Health, said Tuesday. “We’ve seen 10 outbreaks involving religious services, and a number of them involving more than 30 people.”