Gov. Roy Cooper COVID-19

Gov. Roy Cooper speaks during a briefing on North Carolina’s coronavirus pandemic response Tuesday, April 7, 2020 at the North Carolina Emergency Operations Center in Raleigh.

(The Center Square) – North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper stood by his restrictions on religious gatherings Thursday despite being sued by a group of church leaders.

Return America, the nonprofit Judeo-Christian organization behind the lawsuit, said Cooper's executive order that prohibits indoor gatherings of more than 10 people violates freedom of religion rights protected under the U.S. Constitution and state law.

Cooper said Thursday the executive order was crafted to consider First Amendment protections while keeping the safety of North Carolinians a priority.

"We don't want our churches to become hotspots for this virus," Cooper said. "And as we move forward through all of these phases, the restrictions are going to gradually be lifted, and we're going to get to a point where they're going to be no restrictions."

The executive order, which went into effect May 8, allows church gatherings to continue outdoors. Up to 50 people can gather for a funeral, however, under the order. Earlier this week, two Republican lawmakers pushed back against the order calling it "absurd."

"There is no health and safety distinction between these two gatherings in the same chapel. It is a content-based restriction on the free exercise of religion, and it is unconstitutional," Sens. Kathy Harrington, R-Gaston, and Carl Ford, R-Rowan, said in a joint statement.

Advocates for Return America also take issue with the fact the order allows retail businesses to resume operations with 50 percent capacity, calling it discrimination against churches. 

Representatives for the organization said they asked the governor on numerous occasions to loosen the restrictions but never received a response.

Cooper, who plays an active role in his church, said Thursday he was not aware of the lawsuit's details and referred to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommendations that, he said, restrict gatherings that call for being in place for more than 10 minutes.

Cooper's order does allow religious services to take place "outdoors if possible" with social distancing guidance in mind. The exception for funerals, the order said, is "in an effort to promote human dignity and limit suffering." Even though the order allows 50 people to meet for a funeral, it does not specify whether or the event can be indoors or outdoors.

The order does allow gatherings where participants stay in their cars.

"The virus has a significant chance to spread from one person to the next, and we've seen tragic consequences when that's the case," Cooper said. "And so we hope that congregations across North Carolina will talk with their leaders and will make good decisions about what is right, to look after each other."

Staff Reporter

Nyamekye Daniel has been a journalist for three years. She was the managing editor for the South Florida Media Network and a staff writer for The Miami Times. Daniel's work has also appeared in the Sun-Sentinel, Miami Herald and The New York Times.