New Bedford Rescinds 100-Person Coronavirus Restriction on Church Gatherings in Light of Recent U.S. Supreme Court Decision

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The city of New Bedford has rescinded its 100-person limit on church gatherings — regardless of the size of the church — in response to a U.S. Supreme Court ruling barring New York Democratic Governor Andrew Cuomo from severely limiting attendance at church services there.

On November 25, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a preliminary injunction against coronavirus restrictions in New York state in the case Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn v. Cuomo. The court ruled 5-4 that 10-person or 25-person limits on in-person church services for Catholic churches and Orthodox Jewish synagogues in certain counties are not constitutional because they violate the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

Now, New Bedford officials are reacting to the court decision by lifting a 100-person restriction on church services and replacing it with 50 percent of building capacity — which is the state government standard in Massachusetts.

City officials had been asked about the U.S. Supreme Court decision by the Massachusetts Family Institute and First Liberty Institute. New Bedford city solicitor Mikaela McDermott, who wrote a letter dated Thursday, December 3 announcing that the city is rescinding the 100-person restriction, which had applied to every church in New Bedford since May 22.

That includes New Life South Coast Church of New Bedford, which uses a 48,000-square-foot facility that used to be a Shaw’s Supermarket. At 50 percent capacity, it could still hold about 500 people, according to a press release put out by the Massachusetts Family Institute on Friday, December 4.

Marco Debarros, the pastor for New Life South Coast Church, got in touch with First Liberty and Massachusetts Family Institute in November. The two organizations then sent a letter to New Bedford Mayor Jonathan F. Mitchell, questioning these rules back on November 20.

Five days later the U.S. Supreme Court issued its decision in Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn v. Cuomo.

“I am thankful for New Bedford’s decision to follow the statewide standards for church occupancy and that churches in New Bedford are no longer subject to such unique and low occupancy limits,” First Liberty attorney Justin Butterfield said in a written statement Friday.

Andrew Beckwith, president and general counsel for the Massachusetts Family Institute, said New Bedford’s previous 100-person restriction treated churches worse than other types of activities even though the free exercise of religion is guaranteed by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

“The government is barred by the First Amendment from treating religious gatherings worse than those in a secular context,” Beckwith said in a written statement Friday. “Churches just want to be afforded the same trust, flexibility and capacity limits as non-religious activities, like grocery stores. In this case, the church was literally meeting in an old supermarket. As last week’s Supreme Court decision made clear, that kind of anti-religious discrimination cannot stand.”

Debarros was happy with the decision and felt vindicated. In the press release, he said, “The Church is the bedrock of society. We must fight for its rightful place of influence. We are still the light and salt of our generation.”

Pastor Victor Carrion, of the Church of Restoration & New Beginnings in New Bedford, also hailed the change in policy.

“We all are in this pandemic together and taking people’s freedoms away only makes matters worse,” Carrion said in a written statement. “Freedom to gather and worship helps a lot of people deal with these uncertain times. Rescinding the mandate gives us a peace of mind that we still can enjoy our freedoms in this country and worship our God no matter what challenges we are facing as human beings!”