Obama-appointed judge says Maine’s governor can ban in-person church services

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Calvary Chapel pastor Ken Graves leads a recent drive-in service in Orrington. (BDN)

In ruling that the free exercise of religion at church services may be prohibited by an elected state governor, a federal judge has likened going church to “entertainment” such as seeing a movie or having a meal at a restaurant.

In a 23-page ruling on May 9, U.S. District Judge Nancy Torresen found that banning in-person worship services was in the public interest due to the coronavirus pandemic, and does not violate the First Amendment.

Calvary Chapel in Orrington, Maine and pastor Ken Graves sued Maine Gov. Janet Mills in U.S. District Court in Bangor, alleging that Mills’ order violated the freedom of religion and assembly clauses of the First Amendment and other laws intended to protect places of worship.

The suit sought a temporary restraining order that would allow Calvary Chapel to hold in-person services beginning May 10 and a permanent injunction to allow all churches to worship as they did before the shutdown order was imposed.

“Religious gatherings … are more akin to restaurants, entertainment venues, movie theaters, and schools, all of which face the same restrictions as [Calvary Chapel],” the judge said.

The judge also found that granting the motion for a temporary restraining order was not in the public interest.

Torresen, a federal judge since 2011, was nominated by President Barack Obama, a Democrat.

The pastor has said he expects the case, ultimately, will be decided by the U.S. Supreme Court. The church’s attorneys immediately stated their intent to appeal Torresen’s decision to the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston.

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