Two Delaware pastors are suing the state and seeking an unusual ruling – one that would prevent the governor from imposing emergency orders that target houses of worship in the future.
The case piggybacks on a lawsuit filed by a different pastor in May 2020, early in the coronavirus epidemic. That suit was in response to Gov. John Carney’s order that limited attendance at church services to 10 people and enacted other restrictions that were not imposed on grocery stores and dozens of other industries deemed essential.
The state settled that case with the Rev. Christopher Bullock in August 2020, with Carney agreeing not to apply such a limit solely to churches. Carney also agreed to several other restrictions on his emergency powers regarding houses of worship, such as not limiting services to one per week, or restricting hours, ages of attendees or choirs.
Now Alan Hines of Townsend Free Will Church and David Landow of Emmanuel Presbyterian Church in Wilmington want to prevent Carney and future governors from taking any similar action. They point to the state Constitution’s ban on interfering with the “free exercise of religious worship” and essentially want a pre-emptive injunction imposed by Chancery Court.
Lawyer Tom Neuberger represents Hines. He says the Delaware Constitution was first adopted during the Revolutionary War and that Delaware’s founders knew well the threat of malaria, smallpox and other deadly diseases.
“They knew you died from pestilence, disease and plague, and they made no exception. They said the magistrate has no power to interfere with religious worship. And they didn’t say, except when the [Bubonic] Plague comes, except when smallpox comes,” he said.
Neuberger said he would like the General Assembly to address the issue but in the meantime is hoping a chancellor will. Carney ended the state of emergency in Delaware in July.
“Now that the emergency is over, the courts can take the time and study it or look at the history and decide whether the next time around the governor’s gotta keep hands off,’’ Neuberger said.
The pastors also seek monetary damages for losses due to not being allowed to hold services during the first 14 weeks of the state of emergency.
Carney’s office had no comment.