A church in Orrington has sued the governor in federal court over the state’s ban on in-person worship services during the coronavirus crisis.

Faith communities have been unable to gather in person for weeks under the pandemic restrictions. Gov. Janet Mills announced last week that religious groups are now allowed to hold drive-in services as long as worshippers stay in their cars and follow other recommendations for physical distancing.

The Calvary Chapel Bangor filed a complaint Tuesday in the U.S. District Court in Bangor. The church argues that extending the ban on gatherings of more than 10 people to worship services is a violation of religious freedom protected by the U.S. Constitution. It said businesses were allowed to begin reopening without the same restrictions as churches, and the complaint included photos from over the weekend of crowded parking lots outside Walmart and other stores in Bangor.

“Calvary Chapel seeks not to discredit or discard the government’s unquestionable interest in doing that task for which it was instituted –protecting the citizenry,” the complaint says. “But, as is often true in times of crisis, Calvary Chapel respectfully submits that in an effort to uphold her sworn duties, Governor Mills has stepped over a line the Constitution does not permit. Because of that, Calvary Chapel brings this action to ensure that this Court safeguards the cherished liberties for which so many have fought and died.”

Calvary Chapel Pastor Ken Graves indicated in a video and a letter on the church’s website that he planned to defy the governor’s order. Attempts to reach Graves for an interview Wednesday were not successful.

In the video recording, which appears to have been posted Sunday morning, Graves announces, “I want to make sure the whole state and the whole world wide hear the statement this morning.” He goes on to say that the church does not look to government for permission to meet. “It is already ours from God.”

His letter on the church’s website references civil disobedience.

“I find myself in a situation where I cannot obey God and man at the same time in regard to gathering in the name of Jesus Christ,” his statement begins. “… The government now presumes to have the authority to violate our constitutionally guaranteed and God-given rights to freedom of religion and peaceful assembly. I have to disobey such a government.”

Graves, who said his ministry began in the Penobscot County Jail, said he is willing to go to jail if that is what it takes to prevail.

“After 36 years of using the Gospel to turn outlaws into law abiding citizens in Penobscot County, I did not come easily or quickly to the decision to defy the governor,” Graves said in his letter.

The governor briefly addressed the lawsuit during a media briefing Wednesday. She said she has not read the complaint but has been in touch with the Maine Council of Churches and other religious organizations.

“While I respect everyone’s First Amendment right to practice their faith and the religion of their choice, I suggest public health demands certain changes in the way we do a lot of things, and most of the churches in Maine understand that and recognize that,” Mills said.

She quoted from a letter written by the Maine Council of Churches and posted on its Facebook page last week. The council has asked churches to refrain from even drive-in services to prevent the spread of disease. The executive director did not respond to an email Wednesday afternoon about the governor’s statement and the lawsuit.

“We know this has not been easy,” the council’s letter says. “And yet we are fervently asking Maine’s churches to continue to willingly refrain from in-person worship gatherings. … Do this as an embodiment of the love you have for neighbor and self. Do this as a faithful response to the biblical mandate to protect the most vulnerable, the marginalized, the weak and defenseless.”

Similar lawsuits have been filed in federal courts in other states, but the results have been mixed.

A federal judge in Illinois denied a similar request for a temporary restraining order that would have allowed a church to host services with 80 people. On the other hand, a federal judge in Kansas sided with two churches and blocked enforcement of a 10-person limit on in-person attendance at religious services or activities.

In Maine, the Calvary Chapel Bangor also is seeking a temporary restraining order to prevent law enforcement from enforcing the governor’s restrictions on gatherings of more than 10 people. The complaint says the church intends to follow social distancing and personal hygiene guidelines during services in its building, like requiring attendees to be 6 feet apart during the service.

“Absent emergency relief from this Court, Calvary Chapel, its pastor, and all congregants will suffer immediate and irreparable injury from the threat of criminal prosecution for the mere act of engaging in the free exercise of religion and going to church,” the complaint says. “Indeed, if Calvary Chapel, its pastor, or its congregants do not subscribe to what Governor Mills’ has prescribed as orthodox in a worship service, they risk becoming criminals in the State.”

Calvary Chapel describes itself as an Evangelical faith community that believes the Bible is the final authoritative word of God.

The federal court docket indicates that the church is represented by a Bangor attorney and by four additional Florida attorneys from Liberty Counsel, a nonprofit that litigates conservative Christian causes. The Southern Poverty Law Center has designated Liberty Counsel as an anti-LGBTQ hate group.

It is not clear how quickly the court will act on the complaint. U.S. District Judge Nancy Torresen has scheduled a telephone conference in the case for Thursday morning.

Staff Writer Dennis Hoey contributed to this report.

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