FILE – Church pews

(The Center Square) – There is no pandemic exception to the U.S. Constitution, a federal judge in North Carolina has ruled.

U.S. District Court Judge James C. Dever III temporarily blocked Gov. Roy Cooper’s restriction on indoor religious gatherings after a group of church leaders sued the governor for violating their freedom of religion rights protected under the First Amendment.

“Plaintiffs have demonstrated that they are likely to succeed on the merits of their Free Exercise claim concerning the assembly for religious worship provisions in Executive Order 138, that they will suffer irreparable harm absent a temporary restraining order, that the equities tip in their favor, and that a temporary restraining order is in the public interest,’’ Dever wrote Saturday. “Thus, having considered the entire record and governing law, the court grants plaintiffs' motion for a temporary restraining order.”

Cooper's executive order, which went into effect May 8, allowed church gatherings to continue outdoors. Up to 50 people can gather for a funeral, and retail stores are allowed to operate with 50 percent capacity.

The plaintiffs in the case, nonprofit Judeo-Christian organization Return America, People's Baptist Church, Berean Baptist Church, and Berean’s pastor Ronnie Baity said Cooper's executive order discriminated against churches and blocked their constitutional right to worship.

The governor's office stood by his decision Saturday. Indoor meetings are “hotspots” for COVID-19, a spokesman said.

“While our office disagrees with the decision, we will not appeal, but instead urge houses of worship and their leaders to voluntarily follow public health guidance to keep their members safe,” said Ford Porter, Cooper's spokesman.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention call for a limit on mass gatherings as states gradually reopen and offer steps that facilities can take to limit an outbreak, such as keeping attendees 6 feet apart and increasing sanitation. Cooper's order also called for wearing face coverings in public.

Sen. Warren Daniel, R-Burke, co-chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said he hopes the ruling will “put some guardrails on what has been unchecked executive power.”

“[Saturday's] decision is a victory for the constitutional guarantee to freedom of worship,” Daniel said. “Gov. Cooper cannot treat retailers and ABC stores one way and houses of worship another. Nor can he allow one type of worship service to proceed while prohibiting another.”

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.