Pastor Ken Graves leads his congregation in prayer during an outdoor service at Calvary Chapel on in May 2020. Credit: Natalie Williams / BDN

A recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling nixing New York’s attendance limits for houses of worship should apply in Maine, according to lawyers for an Orrington church that has been fighting Gov. Janet Mills over indoor gathering limits related to the coronavirus pandemic since the spring.

Calvary Chapel sued Mills in May over what was then a 10-person limit on indoor gatherings that applied to church services. The church’s appeal in the case is pending before the 1st Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston.

But the assistant attorney general defending Maine’s Democratic governor argued in a recent filing that the Supreme Court’s decision doesn’t apply to the state because Mills’ limit on indoor gatherings — now set at 50 people — applies to any type of indoor gathering, and not just services in houses of worship.

The issue with the New York case — over gathering limits set at 10 or 25 for churches and synagogues depending on how actively the virus was circulating locally — was the decision to have one standard for formal gatherings generally and another for religious institutions, Assistant Attorney General Christopher Taub said.

Maine’s standard for both is the same, he said.

The latest high court decision, issued Nov. 25, was a reversal of an earlier ruling issued before the death of liberal Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg in September.

The justices split 5-4 with new Justice Amy Coney Barrett in the majority. It was the conservative justice’s first publicly discernible vote as a justice, according to The Associated Press. The court’s three liberal justices and Chief Justice John Roberts dissented.

Previously, justices divided 5-4 to leave in place pandemic-related capacity restrictions affecting churches in California and Nevada.

Although Maine’s gathering limits have changed since Calvary Chapel sued, the church’s case still needs to be decided since the Supreme Court “held that ever-changing restrictions cannot moot requests for injunctive relief,” said Daniel J. Schmid of the Liberty Counsel in Orlando, Florida, which represents Calvary Chapel. In addition, he said in a filing, houses of worship remain under a constant threat for similar restrictions to be re-imposed even if they are lifted as the pandemic subsides.

Taub said that there is undisputed evidence that social gatherings, including religious services, pose more serious health risks than other activities, such as shopping.

“While there apparently was similar evidence in [the New York case], the court did not acknowledge it,” Taub said. “If the Court found it ‘troubling’ that more people could enter a store than a house of worship, it was only because the court ignored medical and scientific evidence regarding the environments in which the COVID virus is most easily spread.”

The Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention has confirmed coronavirus outbreaks in a number of Maine churches throughout the pandemic, including in Sanford, Jonesport, Pittsfield, Brooks, Calais and Manchester. Meanwhile, public health experts have found little evidence that shopping has led to significant transmission of the virus.

Calvary Chapel’s suit against Mills, filed in U.S. District Court in Bangor, alleged that the governor’s gathering limits violated the 1st Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which guarantees freedom of religion. The state argued that the public health crisis caused by the pandemic allowed the governor to set those limits without violating the Constitution.

U.S. District Judge District Judge Nancy Torresen found that limiting the number of people attending indoor worship services was in the public interest. The church immediately appealed to the 1st U.S. Circuit Court in Boston where the case has been pending since oral arguments were heard in September.

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