DOVER — Two pastors filed separate lawsuits against Gov. John Carney in the Court of Chancery on Wednesday, looking to “restore religious freedom forever in Delaware,” a news release from The Neuberger Firm stated.
“The government has absolutely no right under our system to interfere with how the church operates,” said attorney Thomas Crumplar at a Wednesday news conference at Townsend Free Will Baptist Church. “They can give guidelines — and the church, which cares about their brothers and sisters, they’re not just customers, they’re going to want to protect them. That should be up to the church to decide, not governments.”
The plaintiffs are the Rev. Allan Hines, pastor of Townsend Free Will Baptist Church, and the Rev. David Landow, pastor of Emmanuel Orthodox Presbyterian Church in Wilmington.
The Rev. Hines is represented by Thomas and Stephen Neuberger of The Neuberger Firm, and Scott D. Cousins of Cousins Law. Mr. Crumplar of Jacobs & Crumplar and Martin D. Haverly are the attorneys for the Rev. Landow.
Via his spokesperson Jonathan Starkey, Gov. Carney had no comment on any pending litigation.
Both pastors say that Gov. Carney’s emergency orders throughout the first 14 weeks of the COVID-19 lockdown in 2020 denied them, on 29 separate occasions, their absolute religious freedoms.
“We ask the courts to order Gov. Carney, and all future Delaware governors, to keep their ‘hands off’ the church in any future emergencies, regardless of any ‘pretense’ they may offer,” the release read.
Townsend Free Will Baptist Church serves a congregation of more than 400. Emmanuel Orthodox Presbyterian has a congregation of over 150.
Citing protection offered under the Delaware Constitution, the release stated, the pastors seek an injunction against emergency orders like the ones Gov. Carney issued in 2020.
They hope to prevent any governor from prohibiting in-person Sunday religious services, preventing indoor preaching, banning singing, barring the elderly from church, prohibiting baptisms, prohibiting the Lord’s supper and favoring one religion over another.
Thomas Neuberger said that under federal law, if supermarkets can remain open during states of emergency, then churches may, as well.
His client’s case, he added, goes a step further and asks for “absolute protection” from government restriction in Delaware.
“If they (the church) feel in their conscience it’s safe to assemble and the governor disagrees, they’ll listen to what the governor says and what his health people say, but the church will make the decision,” he said. “If a governor says, ‘I want everybody closed. Nobody goes to the Acme. Nobody goes to Walmart. Nobody goes to the liquor stores ...’ The church will have the right to meet anyway.”
In the Rev. Hines’ 92-page complaint, his lawyers use historical precedent as justification for their action. It cites the Delaware Bill of Rights of September 1776, which says the First State’s government can never interfere with “the right of conscience in the free exercise of religious worship.” The Delaware Constitution also states the government cannot violate religious freedom.
Both lawsuits allege that Gov. Carney illegally ignored this “total freedom” with his lockdown of all churches, while allowing 236 categories of secular businesses to remain open.
“People forget in terms of how far-reaching the governor’s rules were,” Mr. Crumplar said. “My church faced going to jail to allow me to walk into the church during the time of the governor’s rule, yet I can go to the liquor store, on Sunday, and buy whatever I wanted to. I could drink, but I couldn’t pray.”
The lawsuit states that the “health emergency excuse does not hold water” because the founders of Delaware and their ancestors also experienced the threat of diseases, like malaria, smallpox, bubonic plague and others.
“So despite such threats, in Delaware the doors to the church still were always to be open to pray and implore the mercy of almighty God from plague or pandemic with which the founders were well familiar,” the release stated.
Mr. Crumplar compared his client’s pursuit of religious freedom to the Civil Rights movement.
“Today, two lawsuits were filed in the Court of Chancery, and I dare say, they are the most important constitutional lawsuits the Delaware Court of Chancery has faced in 70 years,” he said. “What happened 70 years ago? Also, two lawsuits were filed in the Court of Chancery and consolidated. Those lawsuits were also based on the U.S. and Delaware constitutions. Those were two Black families that demanded equal justice for them.”
He said one of the proudest moments for the Delaware State Bar Association was the ruling that segregation is unconstitutional.
“Today, we are calling on our court to remain true to the constitution,” he said. “To abide, to show that they will stand up for religious rights, which have been attacked throughout the United States (history).”
In May 2020, Thomas Neuberger was one of the signers of a six-page letter to Gov. Carney from the Committee to Save Christmas. The letter called for expanding religious-gathering guidelines ahead of last year’s holiday season.
The Rev. Christopher Allan Bullock also filed a lawsuit in May 2020, alleging that Gov. Carney’s restrictions were unconstitutional. As with these two lawsuits, the Rev. Bullock’s lawyers asked for an injunction to prohibit governors from imposing similar limitations.
A settlement was reached on the Bullock case in mid-November 2020, requiring that the governor treat churches in a neutral manner in future emergencies — if certain businesses are considered essential, then churches should be included in that definition, as well.
Thomas Neuberger said at the time that the state also agreed to pay the plaintiffs $150,000 in lawyer fees and $7,200 in court costs. He called the resolution a “Christmas miracle.”