“The constitutional benchmark is governmental neutrality, not governmental avoidance of bigotry.” That is the standard by which laws, regulations, executive orders, and ordinances, even in a pandemic, will be judged by courts enforcing the First Amendment of the Constitution. Neutral law that also happens to govern churches may be enforceable. “The right to practice religion freely does not include liberty to expose the community . . . to communicable disease or the latter to ill health or death.” Prince v Massachusetts, 321 US 158, 166-67 (1944).
In Berean Baptist Church v Governor Roy Cooper, Order (ED NC ED 2020), the federal trial court in North Carolina was asked by a church to enjoin enforcement of the governor’s restrictions on religious gatherings. While well meaning, the restrictions required church services to be held outdoors unless it was “impossible” to do so or unless inside worship was required by “beliefs.” Funerals could host fifty persons, but worship could only host ten persons even though churches were deemed “essential.” A well-meaning law enforcement officer would be required to make a spot determination of whether an outdoor worship service was “impossible” or whether “beliefs” legitimately required indoor worship. (The example that came to mind was a baptism by immersion when no body of water was available on the parking lot.) The governor’s order was enforceable by criminal misdemeanor charges. The trial court enjoined enforcement for fourteen days and scheduled a hearing for a preliminary injunction. “There is no pandemic exception to the Constitution of the United States or the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment.”
The Constitutional error imbedded in the governor’s order was the attempt to fashion an order specifically for religious activities. But, a general order applicable to every type of gathering would have closed “shopping malls” and transportation hubs so the governor of North Carolina opted to try and segregate various types of gatherings apparently by their perceived importance. The perception of importance may or may not have been conscious or intentional.
While no one would recommend intentional violation of a government order in an emergency while fears are running higher than the fevers to be prevented, many of the executive orders soon came to be viewed like the 55mph national speed limit on an interstate highway came to be viewed, a polite suggestion and nothing more, such that law enforcement could no longer enforce it. At this writing, many orders are expiring on their own temporal limitations. Thus, most churches will be able to worship as they see fit using the common sense, given by God just as was faith, to protect their people.