CC Bangor Court Update

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Calvary Chapel Bangor Court Update

Still Fighting for First Amendment Protection

Story by Christmas Beeler

The legal battle over church rights in Maine, led by Pastor Ken Graves of CC Bangor, ME, continues indefinitely. Mat Staver, founder and chairman of Liberty Counsel, was set to argue on the church’s behalf last week before the U.S. First Circuit Court of Appeals, but the case has been postponed again—this time, until April.

Pastor Ken has been in a legal battle over churches’ First Amendment rights since May of 2020. Liberty Counsel, a nonprofit legal group that fights for religious freedom, has represented CC Bangor and multiple churches in various states for the freedom to worship during the pandemic.

Pastor Ken and Liberty Counsel are seeking to prevent Maine’s governor from imposing unconstitutional restrictions on churches again. While there are no current restrictions on houses of worship in Maine at this time, nothing prevents the governor from bringing back the harsh restrictions and threats of criminal penalties and fines that she had imposed for much of the pandemic. In fact, Gov. Janet Mills went so far as to continue the stringent mandates after multiple U.S. Supreme Court rulings advised states to allow churches to meet.

Praying in the Battle
In a recent Calvary Chapel Magazine Facebook post requesting prayer for the case last week, hundreds of believers around the world responded with prayer and support—some as far away as Japan. In fact, more than 50,000 people have responded to the urgent request for prayer.

“Thank you all who have been fighting with us for religious freedom through your prayers,” Pastor Ken Graves of CC Bangor said in an earlier call to prayer. “It is necessary for us to contend for religious freedom, to be vigilant, and work with the law. … We are members and citizens of a republic, but we are at the same time subjects of one sovereign [King]—the Lord Jesus Christ—and our allegiance belongs to Him first.”

The Back Story
Last year, CC Bangor and Liberty Counsel were denied a temporary injunction against the governor’s orders; by the time the court finally ruled, the governor had already lifted her restrictions. In this pending case, the church is seeking more permanent protection for their First Amendment right to assemble and freely worship.

Counsel for CC Bangor, Liberty Counsel’s Mat Staver explained in November, “The courts must prevent Gov. Janet Mills from ever imposing these unconstitutional restrictions again. The Supreme Court intervened multiple times to provide relief. Just because the governor has lifted the restrictions does not mean she won’t enact them again.”

Some may argue that the pending case is unnecessary, as there are currently no attendance restrictions on churches. Yet the experience of the past two years seems to prove otherwise: namely, that greater protection and defined boundaries are needed.

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Pastor Ken Graves of Calvary Chapel Bangor, ME, leads his church in worship. Photo by Micah Martin

A Nation in Turmoil
When COVID-19 hit the U.S., some states refused to allow churches to open their doors while allowing casinos, liquor stores, and other businesses to do so. Courts blocked pastors’ pleas, and local authorities issued tickets and fines. Domestic violence, suicide, and drug and alcohol abuse surged. National unrest and a stormy election did little to boost the morale of Americans. Pastor Ken could not abide by these mandates knowing that many were dying without the hope that only Christ offers.

In an epic contest involving multiple courts, CC Bangor was the first to legally challenge the Maine governor’s authority to restrict church services. Lower courts denied Ken Graves a temporary restraining order to prevent law enforcement from fining or arresting himself or his people for gathering to worship.

Maine Refuses to Budge
As the pandemic continued, Gov. Janet Mills allowed more and more businesses to open—yet did not lift severe caps on all churches. The Calvary Chapel filed two other requests for the right to meet and was denied by lower courts (in June and December 2020). Still, the CC Bangor family gathered to worship and hear the Word outdoors for several months, even braving Maine’s frigid temperatures.

In multiple executive orders, Gov. Janet Mills had first banned services and then capped church gatherings at a mere 10 people and later 50 regardless of church size.

At the outset of 2021, other cases around the country were won in favor of Americans’ right to worship, yet Maine refused to budge. After the U.S. Supreme Court ruled for 25% occupancy in California on February 5, 2021, Mills merely amended her rule to allow gatherings of 50 persons or five per 1,000 square feet—in practicality, still limiting most churches in the state to 50 people. As it became clear that churches were being unfairly treated, other church leaders in Maine spoke out against the governor’s harsh restrictions on their congregations.

‘Unconscionable’ Options
Liberty Counsel filed a suit with the Supreme Court a week later (February 11, 2021), asking for an emergency injunction in Maine. Pastor Ken wrote in an affidavit: The “Governor’s order … subjects Calvary Chapel to criminal penalties, fines, and other sanctions. [We] have been forced to choose between worship and criminal punishment. In a country born on the desire to be free and with the right to worship fundamentally enshrined in our First Amendment, forcing such a Hobson’s choice is unconscionable and frightening.”

One clear evidence that the governor was targeting gatherings of a religious nature: Not only were dozens of for-profit businesses allowed to reopen, but also secular substance-abuse programs and shelters. In essence, church workers were allowed to assist and counsel Calvary Residential Discipleship (CRD) participants at the church—as long as they refrained from Bible reading and worship.

That caveat is unacceptable, Ken wrote: “As a pastor who has firsthand experience with the evils of substance abuse and who has worked nearly my entire life to help people trapped in bondage by their addictions, I know that Bible studies and worship are essential. … I cannot in good conscience remove worship from the CRD. …[T]o remove Bible studies and worship would kill the ministry and cause direct and immediate harm to the residents. On the one hand, I am compelled to help the residents in their recovery; and on the other hand, doing so subjects me to criminal charges and fines.”

Souls in Desperate Need
Pastor Ken also noted tragic, record-breaking numbers released by the CDC for 2020: the highest number ever of overdose deaths in a 12-month period, anxiety disorder three times higher than prior years, and depressive disorder four times higher. In light of this, he said, “Gathering … to minister to these souls so desperately in need of the hope that only Jesus Christ can offer has never been more necessary, and Calvary Chapel intends to continue to fill that void.”

Despite these arguments and previous Supreme Court rulings in favor of churches, CC Bangor’s case stretched on. What should have taken a few weeks turned into several months of deliberation. Pastor Ken asked the Calvary Chapel family to pray that the Supreme Court would grant them what it had granted other churches—an emergency injunction for the right to gather. Thousands of believers worldwide answered the call to pray, and some even joined in corporate fasting. Just before the CC Bangor case was set to come before the court, the Supreme Court requested a written response from Gov. Mills. The next day, May 13, 2021, Mills issued a press release that she would lift the ban on indoor gatherings later that month (May 24).

Big Win in California
While lifting the ban came as a relief to churches in Maine, the governor’s legal rights were unchanged. Then came a major victory for the Church’s freedom fight in America. Liberty Counsel led a huge win in California, which had imposed long-standing statewide restrictions. On May 20, 2021, Mat Staver of Liberty Counsel announced, “We have obtained a permanent, statewide injunction prohibiting [the state of California and its governor] from ever issuing another discriminatory COVID restriction on any church or place of worship in the state!”

This permanent ban was a landmark victory since all previous church appeals had been resolved with only temporary or emergency injunctions.

Yet a permanent, statewide injunction for California does not guarantee nowadays that other state governors will respect that decision in their own states—something that would have been understood just a few years ago. Indeed, even county officials in California seemingly ignored this ruling, as they still refuse to lift nearly $3 million in fines against Calvary Christian Fellowship in San Jose, CA.

CC Bangor’s request to the U.S. Supreme Court for relief was eventually denied this past October—viewed by some as irrelevant due to the restrictions having already been lifted in May.

Pastor Ken and Liberty Counsel then filed a request for a similar permanent statewide injunction in November to prevent the governor from reenacting such harsh restrictions on churches in the future. However, the church’s prolonged legal battle to guarantee their right to worship continues.

As citizens in the U.S., Canada, and around the world push back against harsh restrictions and vaccine mandates, the fight for freedom continues.

Now the Lord is the Spirit; and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty. 2 Corinthians 3:17

                  

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All verses above are quoted from the New King James Version, unless otherwise noted.

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