Pastor’s lawyers eye deposing Carney over coronavirus restrictions

Carney in March ordered worship services be limited to no more than 10 people, a restriction he did not impose at the time on more than 230 other businesses deemed essential.

Empty church pews


Lawyers for Democratic Gov. John Carney are resisting attempts to have him questioned under oath in a federal lawsuit over limitations on worship services he imposed because of the coronavirus, according to attorneys for a Delaware cleric challenging Carney’s actions.

Attorneys for the Rev. Dr. Christopher Allan Bullock said in a letter to the court Tuesday that they have been trying for several weeks to accommodate and cooperatively schedule Carney’s deposition, but Carney refuses to be deposed.

“Given that he is the sole defendant and key fact witness, he denies everything in his answer, and this is the only deposition plaintiff intends to take, his refusal presents a problem,” wrote Tom Neuberger, whose firm is representing Bullock.

Bullock’s attorneys say they have been told by Deputy Attorney General Allison McCowan that Delaware Department of Justice officials “do not see or understand the necessity” of scheduling Carney’s deposition.

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“Frankly, they’re just being obstructive,” Neuberger said.

A spokesman for Carney did not immediately respond to an email seeking comment.

The judge plans to discuss a schedule for the case with attorneys Thursday.

Bullock, a well-known New Castle County pastor and community activist, filed a lawsuit in May claiming Carney’s restrictions on worship services were unconstitutional and discriminatory.

Carney then rescinded many of the restrictions, and his lawyers argued Bullock’s claims were now moot.

But Bullock’s attorneys are asking for an injunction to prohibit the governor from imposing similar limitations on religious practices in the future.

Carney in March ordered that worship services be limited to no more than 10 people, a restriction he did not impose at that time on more than 230 other business and industry entities deemed “essential.” Amid increasing criticism, he issued a revised emergency declaration allowing churches to choose between abiding by the 10-person limit or allowing attendance of up to 30% of stated fire occupancy — but only if they complied with several conditions dictating how worship services could be held.

Those conditions included requiring the use of face masks and gloves and banning person-to-person Communion, physical contact during baptisms, and prohibiting the use of choirs, handheld microphones and holy water receptacles. Churches also were told to deny entry to anyone 65 or older.

After Bullock filed his lawsuit, Carney withdrew some of the restrictions and revised others. The revised limitations included requiring worship leaders and singers to wear masks or face shields when speaking or singing. If they were unable to do so, the state suggested, they should turn their backs to the congregation.

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Carney then changed his position again, eliminating the option for houses of worship to hold ceremonies as they please as long as no more than 10 people are present. The new guidance also required that anyone speaking, reading or singing to a live audience must face away from the audience if they are not wearing a face covering or face shield. Other alternatives included keeping at least 13 feet (4 meters) away from the audience or standing behind a physical barrier or partition, such as a sneeze guard. Carney later eliminated that directive as well.

In Tuesday’s letter to the court, Bullock’s attorneys noted that they have dropped their request for $1 in symbolic damages, thus obviating the need for a jury trial and allowing the case to be decided on an expedited basis by the judge.

They also want to amend the complaint to limit and clarify the relief they are seeking regarding any future restrictions on religious services, and to add a claim based on the religious liberty provision of Delaware’s state constitution.

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