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Maine church asks Supreme Court to block virus restrictions

A Maine church is asking the U.S. Supreme Court to block the state from imposing new pandemic restrictions on religious services amid a surge in COVID-19 infections.
In a lawsuit, lawyers representing Calvary Church in Bangor are seeking to prevent Gov. Janet Mills

Updated: July 30, 2021 - 11:10pm

A Maine church is asking the U.S. Supreme Court to block the state from imposing new pandemic restrictions on religious services amid a surge in COVID-19 infections.

In a lawsuit, lawyers representing Calvary Church in Bangor are seeking to prevent Gov. Janet Mills from enforcing or reinstating any pandemic-related restrictions due to the delta variant.

Mills lifted COVID-19 restrictions in March but the litigants say concerns about the highly contagious strain of the virus are leading to new "government lockdowns."

"The fact that the governor is already raising the alarm over the new variants and her continued power to reinstate her prior restrictions at any time demonstrates the continuing need for injunctive relief from this court," a lawyer with the Florida-based Liberty Council, which is representing the church, wrote in the 53-page complaint. "No pastor, church, or parishioner in America should have to choose between worship and criminal sanction flowing from demonstrably discriminatory restrictions."

Lawyers for the church noted previous rulings by the Supreme Court on pandemic-related restrictions on houses of worship, saying the justices have "made it abundantly clear that discriminatory restrictions on religious worship services during COVID-19 are plainly unconstitutional under the First Amendment."

"Despite the abundant precedent from this Court, Maine ignored it all and continued to impose discriminatory and unconstitutional restrictions on religious worship services long after it became clear they were unconstitutional," they wrote in the complaint.

Bans on public gatherings to prevent spread of the virus have fueled confrontations in Maine and elsewhere between religious leaders and local and state officials.

Mills hasn't set new restrictions on gatherings and hasn't indicated that she plans to do so yet amid a surge in COVID-19 cases in the state.

Earlier this week, the Mills administration recommended that everyone wear a mask when in public indoor settings in regions of the state with "substantial" or "high" levels of COVID-19 transmission, regardless of their vaccination status.

The recommendation is based on guidance issued Tuesday from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which now says face coverings should be worn inside schools and in high transmission areas, regardless of vaccination status.

The state will also require masks for all K-12 teachers, staff, students and school visitors, regardless of vaccination status, based on the federal recommendations.

Calvary Chapel filed a similar lawsuit against pandemic restrictions in May 2020 after Mills took steps to limit the size of gatherings to 10 people. Lawyers for the church argued that the restrictions violated the parishioners' constitutional and statutory rights. The church quested an injunction against the restrictions, which was denied.

The high court is scheduled to hear the case in September, but the litigants argue that would be too long to wait with the state weighing new restrictions. They ask the court to expedite a review of the lawsuit.

"Relief is needed now to prevent the governor from imposing her unconstitutional restrictions at a whim," they wrote in the complaint. "Calvary Chapel will continue to suffer irreparable injury to its cherished First Amendment liberties absent relief from this court."

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