Worcester Pastor Sues, Asks Judge To Overturn Governor’s Order

Printed from: https://newbostonpost.com/2020/05/14/worcester-pastor-sues-asks-judge-to-overturn-governors-order/

The Worcester pastor who has held five church services for more people than the limit set by the governor is asking a federal judge to overturn the governor’s order on the grounds that it violates religious freedom.

Pastor Kris Casey and Adams Square Baptist Church filed suit in U.S. District Court in Boston yesterday seeking a temporary restraining order to prevent authorities from enforcing the governor’s order.

Casey has been hit with a $300 civil penalty and is also the subject of an application for a criminal complaint by Worcester police for violating Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker’s executive order of March 23 limiting most gatherings to 10 people in an attempt to prevent the spread of coronavirus.

Casey has held church services for several dozen people on Sunday, April 26; Sunday, May 3; Wednesday, May 6; Sunday, May 10; and Wednesday, May 13.

State and local officials have defended the executive order as legal under the emergency powers allowed by the state’s 1950 civil defense statute and reasonable in order to protect public health.

But critics of the order say it violates the right to practice religion freely as guaranteed by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and Article II of the Massachusetts Constitution.

Critics note that the governor has deemed certain activities essential and allowed them to stay open – including grocery stores, drug stores, liquor stores, big-box stores, and medical marijuana retailers – while deeming other activities non-essential and restricted them, including religious services.

“The Order is not a neutral law of general applicability because it targets Constitutionally protected activity, while significantly burdening the Plaintiffs’ right to the freedom of religion and assembly, establishing an orthodox form of religious exercise approved by the Commonwealth, all the while providing broad exemptions for many activities that are not constitutionally protected, all without due process of law,” states the pastor’s complaint, dated Wednesday, May 13 and signed by lawyer Carl F. Schmitt, who has an office in Lancaster, and by David C. Gibbs Jr., an Ohio lawyer who is the founder of the Christian Law Association, which advises and represents Fundamentalist Protestant churches.

The governor’s press office could not immediately be reached for comment.

Public officials have noted that during the coronavirus emergency many churches have held services online, allowing congregants to follow the services from a distance.

But the pastor maintains that in-person services are vital to his religious beliefs and that under the state and federal constitutions the government isn’t allowed to define what religious practices are acceptable.

“Absent emergency relief from this Court, the Church, Pastor Casey, and all members and/or attendees will suffer immediate and irreparable injury from the threat of civil and criminal prosecution for the mere act of engaging in the free exercise of religion and in assembling for worship. If the Church or its members and Pastor Casey do not subscribe to what Governor Baker has established as orthodox in a worship service, they risk civil and criminal penalties, including imprisonment,” the pastor’s complaint states.

Casey has taken health precautions during his services, including, according to court documents, hiring a professional cleaning company to clean the church before each service at a cost of $1,300 per time. He has also had temperatures checked at the door, required masks and gloves, enforced social distancing, and prohibited physical contact.

A hearing on the Worcester police’s criminal application against Pastor Casey before a clerk magistrate has been scheduled for Monday, June 15 in Worcester District Court. The charge is violating the governor’s executive order.

The pastor’s federal lawsuit names as defendants Governor Baker, who issued the executive order; Worcester city manager Edward M. Augustus Jr., who has ordered local police to enforce it; and Worcester Police Chief Steven Sargent, who served the $300 civil penalty citation on Pastor Casey and has pursued the criminal application. All are named in their official capacities only, and not personally.

A spokesman for the city of Worcester on Thursday morning said the city declines comment.

The federal case is called Casey v. Baker.

Whether or not to open church again has drawn varying reactions from religious leaders. Some, such as the Roman Catholic bishops of Massachusetts, closed their churches to the public voluntarily a week before the governor’s order went into effect and have not publicly sought to re-open them again. Representatives of some mainline Protestant denominations also made public statements this week saying they support the governor.

But about 400 pastors in Massachusetts, mostly evangelical Protestants, have signed a letter saying the governor should allow churches to reopen soon, and have criticized the governor for not consulting church leaders more in the re-opening process.

Governor Baker has been noncommittal so far. He expressed concern on Friday, May 8 that coronavirus would spread at church services, particularly because so many people over 50 attend them.

Casey, reached Thursday morning, called on pastors to resist the governor’s order limiting church services.

“If we allow the government to shut down the light of Jesus Christ, America will go dark spiritually, and we may never return,” Casey said in a text message to New Boston Post. “Our church is open and has been for 130 years. Churches in Massachusetts, it’s time to let your light shine for Jesus again.”