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The 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston will consider the appeal of an evangelical church in Orrington challenging Gov. Janet Mills’ ban on large gatherings that kept congregations from worshiping in person until recently.
A three-judge panel last week refused to lift the restrictions but agreed to consider the arguments in the case even though the U.S. Supreme Court narrowly upheld gathering limits in a similar case in California. The high court ruled 5-4 that limits on the number of people who may attend in-person religious services do not violate the freedom of religion and assembly clauses of the First Amendment.
That decision most likely will take precedence over the Maine church’s appeal even though 20 Maine churches, all with more than 50 members, have backed Calvary Chapel’s position. Oral arguments have not been set.
Mills in mid-March limited the number of people who could gather inside a building to 10 in an effort to slow the spread of the coronavirus. In response, houses of worship began streaming services online. The governor upped the occupancy limit to 50 people beginning the weekend of May 29, provided participants wear masks and follow social distancing guidelines.
Calvary Chapel and its pastor, Ken Graves, sued the governor on May 5 in U.S. District Court in Bangor, arguing that the gathering limit was unconstitutional. The lawsuit asked a judge to allow all congregations to worship as they did before the shutdown orders were imposed.
The state argued Mills’ orders did not violate the Constitution because they did not target houses of worship but were directed at places where people gather including theaters, restaurants, bars, event centers and other indoor venues. U.S. District Judge Nancy Torresen, a President Barack Obama appointee, ruled on May 9 that prohibiting in-person worship services was in the public interest due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The judges on the appeals panel are: Jeffrey Howard of New Hampshire, who was appointed to the court in May 2002 by President George Bush; Rogeriee Thompson of Rhode Island, who was appointed in March 2010 by Obama and Juan Torruella of Puerto Rico, who was appointed in October 1984 by President Ronald Reagan.
Watch: Why Calvary Chapel gathered outdoors on Sunday