FILE – Church pews

(The Center Square) – Calvary Chapel of Bangor Maine has resumed holding indoor services while also practicing social distancing and following sanitizing guidelines, despite threats of criminal charges, fines and imprisonment.

Represented by Liberty Counsel, Calvary Chapel contends that Gov. Janet Mills’ orders prohibiting and severely restricting religious assembly and worship is unconstitutional.

The church’s lawsuit and appeals process began in May and ultimately reached the First Circuit Court of Appeals, when Liberty Counsel presented oral arguments before its three-judge panel Sept. 9.

The same scrutiny being mandated for houses of worship is not being imposed on “essential” commercial and non-religious entities, including liquor stores, marijuana dispensaries, warehouse clubs, and big box stores, the lawsuit alleges.

The governor initially prohibited all religious gatherings, including holding services in parking lots. The initial order stipulated that violators would face criminal penalties of up to six months in jail and a $1,000 fine.

After Liberty Counsel sued, the governor said at some point in the future she would allow “very limited worship,” but only after churches applied with the state to re-open, were approved to reopen, and displayed a badge on the outside of the building signifying it had the state’s approval to be open.

“The government wrongly presumes to have the authority to violate our constitutionally guaranteed and God-given rights to freedom of religion and peaceful assembly,” the church’s pastor, Ken Graves, said in a statement.

Throughout the litigation, Mills has “haphazardly changed and reinterpreted her restrictions on churches” and religious organizations, Liberty Counsel argues, even after she first relaxed and later re-imposed restrictions on many businesses and entities based on her evaluation of the “public health metrics.”

“Governor Mills has constantly moved the goalposts throughout this litigation to avoid accountability for her unconstitutional orders,” Liberty Counsel Assistant Vice President of Legal Affairs Roger Gannam said.

The orders were initially announced as an attempt to slow the spread of the coronavirus.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, which reports all case data it receives from all 50 states and the District of Columbia, as of data reported through Sept. 14, there have been 4,918 coronavirus cases in Maine. Among them, 4,415 are confirmed and 503 are probable. There are 432 hospitalizations, 4,280 recoveries, and 137 coronavirus-related deaths.

As a percentage of Maine’s 1.34 million population, coronavirus deaths represent 0.001 percent. The state does not report which deaths were associated with comorbidity factors.

Critics argue the state should have already fully reopened in light of this data; instead, policies solely restricting houses of worship continue.

Under the currently challenged orders, houses of worship can hold “secular but not religious” activities, including providing food, shelter and social services to an unlimited number of people.

Prior to becoming a pastor, Ken Graves was committed to helping people in recovery who were suffering from alcohol abuse and other addictions. Although Calvary Chapel serves the needs of the greater community, the heart of the ministry is the yearlong live-in recovery program for addicts, the church notes. At any given time, 48 people “relearning life” live on church property. Their lives and activities cannot be relegated into secular versus religious categories, Graves argues.

The governor deemed substances to which people were addicted as “essential” and permitted secular services in the same church building where she also prohibited the same people from participating in religious services. Those in recovery were permitted to meet for substance abuse support but were prohibited from participating in a yearlong program that includes studying the Bible, praying and worshiping.

“The moment a Bible is opened – even as part of a life skills, food, shelter or addiction program – the entire operation violates Gov. Mills’ illegal orders,” Staver said in a statement. He added that, “All houses of worship have special protections under the First Amendment [and] cannot be unequally treated or relegated to second class status. The First Amendment deems churches to be ‘essential.’”

At the hearing, a judge asked the state’s attorney if the governor’s order allowed employees working at “essential businesses” to gather at the beginning of their shift to review their tasks for the day, to which he answered, “yes.”

The judge then asked what would happen if a morally uplifting message was delivered at the meeting. The attorney replied, “I was afraid of hypothetical questions like this.”

“He never did answer the question because he couldn’t – without admitting the governor was wrong,” Staver said.

“The fact that Governor Mills would allow many exemptions to all sorts of services, but only if those services do not include worship, is proof that shutdown orders discriminate against churches and people of faith,” he added.

The appeals court has yet to rule on the matter.

If it rules in the favor of Calvary Chapel, Liberty Counsel would go back to the trial court to complete the litigation. The state could also seek review in the U.S. Supreme Court.

If the appellate court rules against the church, it will seek review in the U.S. Supreme Court. Liberty Counsel may also proceed with trial court litigation while also preparing its Supreme Court petition.