A federal judge has denied an emergency attempt to stop limits on religious services in Delaware, issued by Governor John Carney, tied to the coronavirus pandemic.
U.S. District Court Judge Colm F. Connolly denied the Reverend Dr. Christopher Allan Bullock's request for a restraining order in a Memorandum Opinion issued late Friday night, following three hours of oral argument that ended at 5 p.m. Thursday. The U.S. Third Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed Connolly's decision Saturday in a decision 2-1.
In his decision, Connolly said issuing a temporary restraining order would limit not expand Bullock's right to exercise religious; he also determined that Dr. Bullock made no showing of "irreparable harm" if the temporary restraining order was not issued.
In his motion filed just a week prior, Dr. Bullock seeks to preserve a "status quo defined by the Fourth Modification to the State of Emergency." However, Connolly points out, religious worship was at that time, limited to 10 persons or less. Under subsequent modifications and state guidance, drive-in services and indoor services with an occupancy of 30 percent--if social distancing and other guidelines are in place--are permitted.
"Thus, counsel's proposed definition of status quo is not the existing state of affairs but instead the state of affairs he believes Dr. Bullock is entitled to under the Constitution and which he hopes to achieve with this lawsuit-that is, a state of affairs in which religious organizations are treated the same as the other 23 7 businesses deemed essential by the Governor in the Fourth Modification. That state of affairs, however, did not exist as of May 13th, when Dr. Bullock first objected to the status quo," the opinion reads.
Connolly also wrote that Dr. Bullock's counsel, Tom Neuberger, argued his client would be "irreparably harmed" by requirements to preach wearing a mask, being unable to hold a baptism, and distribute communion.
"There is, however, no record evidence to support these assertions, and attorney argument cannot establish a showing of irreparable harm," the opinion said.
The complaint noted Bullock's church celebrates communion "once a month" and holds baptisms "quarterly."
"There is nothing in the Verified Complaint or in any affidavit submitted by Dr. Bullock to show that Dr. Bullock's church intended to serve communion or hold a baptism this coming Sunday, let alone that the church or its congregants would be harmed if communion service or a baptism did not occur this coming Sunday. Nor is there any suggestion in the Verified Complaint or evidence in the record to establish that Dr. Bullock would be irreparably harmed if required to preach this Sunday wearing a mask," the opinion said.
However, Connolly noted his decision not to issue a temporary restraining order is not a reflection on the merits of Dr. Bullock's claim.
"Those claims implicate one of our most treasured rights protected by the Constitution-the right to exercise freely one's religion. And they implicate as well the fundamental right of a state 'to protect itself against an epidemic of disease which threatens the safety of its members.' These important principles make this an important case, and my decision today will afford me the opportunity to give the case the considered reflection it deserves."
Read the judge's full Memorandum Opinion, followed by the full appeal: