City, State Agree To Leave Pastor Alone This Sunday – What Will Governor Do Monday?

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State and local authorities have agreed not to try to punish a Worcester pastor for a public church service he is planning to have this weekend while the governor’s aides work out how churches will be affected by the first phase of re-opening next week.

Supporters of re-opening churches are hoping it’s a sign of a possible forthcoming breakthrough.

A lawyer for Pastor Kris Casey of Adams Square Baptist Church in Worcester released a statement Friday afternoon sounding optimistic that churches might get more leeway than they have now when the governor’s Reopening Advisory Board issues its report Monday, May 18.

“Though my client remains under jeopardy of a pending criminal complaint issued in connection with his practice of protected constitutional rights, I am happy to report that we have reached a temporary agreement with the Governor’s office and the city of Worcester that stipulates Pastor Casey won’t have to worry about being fined or arrested for having a small, safe church gathering this Sunday,” said Casey’s lawyer, Carl F. Schmitt, of Schmitt & Dillon, a law firm in Lancaster, in a written statement.

“We are hopeful that the Governor’s reopening plan will give the same protection to all churches in the Commonwealth starting Monday and Pastor Casey, his family, and Adams Square Baptist Church are thankful for the assistance of state and city officials in this matter,” Schmitt said.

Church services in Massachusetts are currently classified as nonessential activities in Governor Charlie Baker’s March 23 coronavirus executive order limiting most gatherings to 10, including what the order calls “faith-based” events. Guidelines issued by the state call for a warning for the first offense, up to a $300 civil penalty for a second offense, and criminal penalties for third and subsequent offenses, including a fine of up to $500 “or term of imprisonment or both.”

Pastor Casey defied the order Sunday, April 26, holding a service for several dozen people – and then again on Sunday, May 3; Wednesday, May 6; Sunday, May 10; and Wednesday, May 13. He took health precautions, including having a professional cleaning of the church before each service, checking temperatures at the door, requiring masks and gloves, and enforcing social distancing.

After the second service Worcester police issued him a citation for a $300 civil penalty; after the third service they applied for a criminal complaint and a $500 fine in Worcester District Court.

On Thursday, May 7, as he was announcing the pursuit of criminal charges, Worcester city manager Edward M. Augustus Jr. said city officials were “following measures that are outlined in the governor’s order, as to actions that could be taken for each successive violation.”

But since then city and state officials haven’t talked like that in public – even after Pastor Casey violated the order two more times.

On Wednesday, May 13, the pastor sued the governor and Worcester officials in U.S. District Court in Boston, asking a judge to overturn the governor’s executive order limiting church services on the grounds that it violates the free exercise of religion guaranteed by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. The defendants in Casey’s lawsuit are Governor Baker, city manager Augustus, and Worcester Police Chief Steven Sargent.

A hearing on the pastor’s motion for a temporary restraining order against the governor was scheduled to take place at 3 p.m. Friday, May 15, but was cancelled after the lawyers involved reached an interim agreement.

A joint motion filed late Friday afternoon by lawyers for the pastor, the state, and the city states that “the Governor will be issuing a further Executive Order relative to Covid-19 … on Monday, May 18, 2020 that will amend the existing executive order scheme in ways relevant to the issues in the case.”

Worcester assistant city solicitor Wendy Quinn, who is representing the city manager and police chief in the lawsuit, declined comment on their behalf on Friday afternoon.

A spokesman for the Massachusetts Attorney General’s office, which is representing the governor, could not be reached late Friday afternoon.

Late Friday night, Pastor Casey issued a jubilant written statement.

“My family and I, along with our church, would like to give thanks to Almighty God for all that he has done! He has delivered us today and all praise, glory and honor belongs to Him,” Pastor Casey said in the statement.

Casey said he does not want to clash with government officials, and he thanked the ones he is suing for agreeing not to pursue him for what he does this Sunday.

 “We would like to extend our sincere gratitude to Governor Baker for the assurance he has given that our rights to worship our Savior will not be infringed upon this weekend,” Pastor Casey said. “We would also like to express our sincere thanks to City Manager Augustus and Police Chief Steve Sargent, for working in conjunction with the Governor on this important matter of religious liberty. We are so thankful for what they have all done here today in the city of Worcester.”