Pastor Ken Graves speaks to his congregation during an outdoor service at Calvary Chapel in Orrington on May 10, 2020. A federal judge Friday dismissed his church's lawsuit challenging Gov. Janet Mills' COVID-19 gathering restrictions early in the pandemic. Credit: Natalie Williams / BDN

A federal judge Friday dismissed an Orrington church’s year-old lawsuit that challenged Gov. Janet Mills’ COVID-19 restrictions on gatherings, calling the church’s case moot following the governor’s gradual loosening of limits before she eliminated them late last month.

Calvary Chapel sued Mills in May 2020, objecting to what was then a 10-person limit on gatherings aimed at preventing the spread of the coronavirus. The church said that violated the First Amendment. The gathering limit later grew to 50 and stayed there for much of the past year before loosening in February and disappearing on May 24.

In her 35-page opinion, U.S. District Judge Nancy Torresen called the evangelical church’s case moot because the restrictions it was objecting to had gone away and there was no indication the state planned to reimpose them.

“Given the current lack of restrictions, a court order granting the relief sought in the complaint would be meaningless,” she wrote.

Torresen had previously ruled in Mills’ favor in the case in late May 2020, saying the gathering restrictions were in the public’s interest and that they didn’t violate the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

Calvary Chapel and its attorneys from the Orlando, Florida-based group Liberty Counsel have continued fighting Mills’ restrictions, even after they changed. They have argued that they remain “under a constant threat” of reimposed restrictions.

Mat Staver, Liberty Counsel’s founder and chairman and lead counsel on the Calvary Chapel case, rejected Torresen’s finding that the case is moot.

“There’s plenty of precedent from the Supreme Court that holds these cases are not moot simply because governors change or abandon executive orders,” he said.

The U.S. Supreme Court, which has grown more conservative with the addition of Justice Amy Coney Barrett, who was appointed by former President Donald Trump last year, has ruled against state restrictions on worship services in New York and California in recent months.

Torresen, in her ruling, argued that the circumstances were different between the Maine and New York and California cases, and that there was a greater likelihood in those two other states that restrictions would return.

But Staver said that the church remains under a threat of the restrictions being reimposed because the state has defended the restrictions in court and Mills hasn’t forfeited the authority to issue new executive orders.

Calvary Chapel will appeal Torresen’s ruling to the 1st Circuit Court of Appeals with hopes that the U.S. Supreme Court will eventually take up the case, Staver said. The church is seeking an order to bar “any further discrimination against any churches or places of worship,” he said.

“We didn’t expect a favorable ruling with this judge based upon her previous disposition,” he said. “We were essentially wanting to be able to have the gates open so we could move up through the appeal process and go up to the Supreme Court. Now we have that opportunity and that’s the direction we are going.”

A spokesperson for Attorney General Aaron Frey, whose office defended Mills in the lawsuit, did not immediately respond to a request for comment Friday.

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