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Judge blocks Governor Cooper's coronavirus-related orders on indoor church services

Church leaders argued Cooper's guidelines restricted their constitutional rights to worship freely.

RALEIGH, N.C. — A federal judge in North Carolina has sided with conservative Christian leaders and blocked the enforcement of restrictions that Gov. Roy Cooper ordered affecting indoor religious services during the pandemic. 

The order from Judge James C. Dever III came Saturday, days after two Baptist churches, a minister and a Christian revival group filed a federal lawsuit seeking to immediately block enforcement of rules covering religious services within the Democratic governor’s executive orders. 

The plaintiffs argued the limits violate their rights to worship freely and treat churches differently from retailers and other secular activities. Cooper's office says it won't appeal the ruling.

It comes just days after dozens of pastors and other religious leaders from across North Carolina met in Raleigh Thursday, calling on the state to lift its tight restrictions on churches so they can reopen for in-person services. 

Return America has support from roughly 200 church leaders across North Carolina and eight state officials, including Jeff McNeely from Iredell County, and Larry Pittman from Cabarrus County.  The group said they're not being treated fairly. 

Governor Cooper's office responded to the ruling Saturday, saying the governor's office won't appeal the decision, but disagrees with it,

“We don’t want indoor meetings to become hotspots for the virus and our health experts continue to warn that large groups sitting together inside for long periods of time are much more likely to cause the spread of COVID-19," the statement says. "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.”

Congressman Dan Bishop (R-NC), who represents North Carolina's 9th Congressional District, released a statement on the order, applauding the court 'for rebuking' the governor's order. 

“Governor Cooper’s targeting of North Carolinians of faith, foot-dragging in reopening our state, and utter dismantling of our economy has made his response to the coronavirus among the most extreme in the entire country," Congressman Bishop said, in part. "Today’s ruling confirmed it’s even worse than that - an unlawful trampling of our constitutional right to exercise our faith in God." 

Churches now have to make some tough decisions.

"We recognize we have a tremendous responsibility to our congregation and people in our community" Good Shepherd Church Director of Communications said April Portrais.

The Good Shepperd Church says they just aren’t ready to go indoors.

"We want to hold services outdoors, we're just not comfortable holding that many people inside the church building,” Portrais said.

The church will be using spray paint to remind people to keep their distance. Sunday, churchgoers will be able to bring their own lawn chairs and be separate from other families.

The new order left people in the Charlotte area with mixed reactions. Time will tell how churches in the area will adapt — but since it is church-by-church, make sure to check with your place of worship ahead of time.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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