Virus Outbreak Texas

Using social distancing practices, churchgoers return to in-person services at Alamo Heights Baptist Church, Sunday, May 10, 2020, in San Antonio. Texas' stay-at-home orders due to the COVID-19 pandemic have expired and Texas Gov. Greg Abbott has eased restrictions on many businesses, state parks, churches and places of worship. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)

They're calling themselves the "Committee to Save Christmas," and they're threatening legal action against the state and the governor if their right to practice religious freedom isn't restored soon. 

The group is wishing to remain anonymous for now, fearing retribution, but attorney Tom Neuberger, who represents them, said its comprised of about a dozen pastors, businessmen, and political figures.

They sent a six-page demand letter to Governor John Carney on Wednesday, May 13, 2020, calling Delaware's State of Emergency and various modifications--which include stay-at-home orders, as well as bans on gatherings of 10 persons or more--a violation of the First Amendment.

"When it was Easter, out of fear of imprisonment, all the churches shut down for that most Holy day of the year, and the committee believes that that should never happen again. With eight months remaining before the celebration of Christmas, it's time for Carney to allow religious worship back again inside churches, synagogues, and mosques, provided socially distancing and other generally applicable health-related precautions are responsibly practiced by the church."

The committee noted in the last two months Delaware has moved to reopen secular businesses; some like barbers and hair salons, which were initially deemed non-essential, have re-opened their doors under strict guidelines.

"The big-box shopping, landscaping, laundromats, law firms, grocery stores [are all allowed to be open], but you can't have soul-sustaining activities, and this is discriminatory under the First Amendment of our Constitution--our very first freedom."

Churches and places of worship don't directly appear on a list of state-sanctioned "essential businesses." But "religious organizations" were deemed essential.

"You can go out to buy liquor, but you can't go to church on Sunday," said Neuberger. "Such a distinction cannot stand because if beer is 'essential,' so is Easter, and so shall be Christmas."

Neuberger believes Carney made "honest" mistakes in the threat of the public health emergency.

"He had to act in hyper-pressurized environment; it's been two months now. He can step back and think on these serious issues, and remove the serious precedents to our freedoms by stopping church services if people want to engage in social distancing and other safe practices that people are using in other venues."

Other states have seen lawsuits challenging emergency orders that closed places of worship. The 6th Circuit Court of Appeals in Ohio has issued two affirmations of religious freedom along with two District Courts in Kentucky, according to Neuberger, to allow for worship inside a church building.

The demand letter cites the Lighthouse Fellowship Church on Chincoteague Island, Virginia, whose pastor was allegedly threatened with jail time and a $2,500 fine for holding a 16-person church service on Palm Sunday, with social distancing guidelines in place. The church sued, and the U.S. Department of Justice has intervened to protect it from was called "illicit religious content discrimination." Matthew Schneider, the special U.S. Attorney reviewing state activities in this regard is quoted as saying:

"Unlawful discrimination against people who exercise their right to religion violates the First Amendment whether we are in a pandemic or not."

"Or, in the words of the U.S. Attorney General on April 27th, 'the Constitution is not suspended in times of crisis,'" the demand letter cites.

If Carney doesn't act soon, Neuberger said they'll file a lawsuit. He added he'd also challenge the stay-at-home orders which ban a person's right to peacefully protest.  

"I'm saying that the criminalization of peaceful protests...has to be lifted," Neuberger said. "You're allowed to protest on the streets, in the parks, in front of Legislative Halls. There should not be a six-month jail sentence...hanging over your head if you've got the guts to go out and violate the law."

On May 1, as protesters gathered in both Wilmington and Dover, Governor Carney said at a bi-weekly coronavirus news conference he had concerns about the protests, but wanted to respect Delawareans' rights.

"Obviously, they have free speech rights and so you always want to be careful, particularly with respect to that, but they don't have the right to put other people at risk, which is what happens when they're gathering, kind of illegally," Carney said. "But I, just, as governor, don't want to go around looking for...fights. I just don't think it's productive. I want people to work together. I would rather that they gather to make the case with me in a kind of reasonable way, and I hear them. They have every right to do what they're doing. They do not have the right to do it in the way that they're doing it. That's counterproductive, I think, to pick fights. Obviously, we have to enforce some of the restrictions, and we've tried to do that respectfully, but seriously. And I think that's the most effective way to do it "

No one has been arrested for protesting stay-at-home orders in Delaware.

When reached for comment Wednesday, a spokesman for the governor said they've "presumably" received the letter and are reviewing it.

Read the group's full letter: