Calvary Chapel Bangor has lost its court bid to hold an in-church religious service in Orrington on Sunday.

U.S. District Judge Nancy Torresen denied Calvary Chapel’s motion for a temporary restraining order that would have allowed it to hold an in-church service Sunday in spite of a state ban on large gatherings, saying the church’s lawsuit against Gov. Janet Mills is unlikely to succeed, and could even harm the public.

“The State is managing an extraordinary array of issues, and it has responded to the challenges raised by COVID-19 by establishing uniform standards and restrictions based on evolving scientific evidence,” Torresen said in a 23-page ruling issued Saturday.

She concluded: “Upsetting the careful balance being drawn by Maine’s Governor at this time would have an adverse effect on the public interest.”

Calvary Chapel has already filed an appeal of the ruling. The church acknowledges that such denials aren’t typically appealable, but it argues in its appeal that Torresen’s refusal “might have serious, perhaps irreparable consequence” that only an immediate appeal could resolve.

The denial of the temporary restraining order is the latest development in a legal battle over the state’s ban on in-person gatherings of more than 10 people, which Calvary Chapel said violates people’s constitutional and statutory rights to free speech and freely exercise their religious beliefs.


Torresen’s ruling applies only to Calvary Chapel’s motion for a restraining order, but much of her denial is based on her conclusion that the church failed to demonstrate that its 10-count lawsuit is likely to succeed on its merits at trial.

“Over the last several weeks, the majority of courts that have considered similar executive orders in other states have concluded that a state does not violate (religious freedoms) when it limits in-person religious services to ten people, at least as long as the state permits drive-in services,” Torresen wrote.

In Mills’ plan to ease social distancing restrictions, Maine allows drive-in church services if the attendees remain inside their cars, which must be at least 6 feet apart. The state limits the size and intimacy of the gathering, just like it does for schools or diners, not the religious freedoms, Torresen concluded.

The church also failed to prove it would suffer irreparable harm if the order wasn’t granted, Torresen said.

She noted that Calvary Chapel wanted to be treated the same as a state-defined “essential business,” but a store of that size, or 10,000 square feet, would be limited to serving no more than 15 people at one time. A five-person difference does not constitute irreparable harm, she said.

But granting Calvary’s motion might cause irreparable harm to the state, Torresen concluded.

“The harm to the State that would come from an order requiring it to exempt religious institutions from gathering restrictions is profound,” she wrote. “If the prevalence of COVID-19 pulses up in a community, it puts lives, and particularly the lives of our most vulnerable citizens and the health care workers trying to save them, at risk. It also threatens the precarious steps we are making toward reopening.”

On Friday, Deputy Attorney General Christopher Taub said Mills’ March 15 ban on in-church services that serve more than 10 people at a time was a part of the state’s response to the coronavirus pandemic and did not target churches. It applies to all manners of gatherings, from fundraisers to fairs, he said.

“While the plaintiff claims it should be treated like retail stores, public health officials have determined that, for many reasons, religious services pose a greater risk of infection than activities that are currently allowed,” Taub said. “In other states, houses of worship have been linked to significant outbreaks.”


Taub noted in the response that faith-based entities can still deliver services by live-streaming, recording the services on a DVD and delivering it to a parishioner or holding a drive-thru service. “In light of all this, the plaintiff is not likely to prevail on the merits,” said Taub.

On Saturday, however, Calvary Chapel Bangor filed an amicus brief supporting its lawsuit noting that two federal courts in Kentucky have sided with churches there in their lawsuits against that state’s ban on in-church services.

“These opinions demonstrate that Governor Mills simply has not and cannot demonstrate that her GATHERING ORDERS withstand constitutional scrutiny,” said the brief, filed by attorneys for Calvary Chapel. “This Court should issue the temporary restraining order requested by Calvary Chapel and restrain the Governor from continuing to violate Calvary Chapel’s constitutional liberties.”

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. But 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.

As part of Maine’s State of Civil Emergency To Protect Public Health, public gatherings are limited to 10 or fewer people and social distancing must be maintained.


Dr. Nirav Shah, director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, said in an affidavit also filed Friday that the very nature of in-house church services makes it difficult to practice proper social distancing, unlike other public places, such as supermarkets.

“Gatherings in houses of worship, on the other hand, may involve large numbers of individuals in close proximity to one another,” said Shah. “Indeed, in some instances the very purpose of such gatherings is to engage in fellowship and personal interaction. Worship services often involve singing, community prayers, and contact such as hand shaking or food or drink sharing that could pose a public health risk. Additionally, such gatherings may be held in spaces that are small and do not provide adequate ventilation.”

The Calvary Chapel Bangor filed its complaint Tuesday in the U.S. District Court in Bangor. The church argued 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 respectfully submits that in an effort to uphold her sworn duties, Governor Mills has stepped over a line the Constitution does not permit,” said the complaint. “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.”

On its Facebook page, Calvary Chapel told parishioners it would be holding its three Sunday morning services outside. Chairs will be set up so families clad in all-weather gear can still sit together and listen to a service broadcast over the radio.

On Thursday night, the church’s pastor, Ken Graves, posted a video message to the church website explaining why he planned to hold in-person church services this Sunday.

“I am not waiting for permission to be granted to me from my government for me to obey my king,” Graves said in a video entitled “MY CIVIL DISOBEDIENCE.” “My conscience will not allow me.”

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