Local News

Sheriffs of larger counties not standing down on virus-related restrictions on churches, but don't expect to enforce them either

Posted May 15, 2020 5:02 p.m. EDT
Updated May 15, 2020 7:38 p.m. EDT

— While a number of rural North Carolina sheriffs have said their deputies won't stand in the way of churches holding large, indoor services on Sunday in violation of the statewide stay-at-home order, sheriffs in Wake, Durham and Orange counties said Friday that they prefer a more nuanced approach to the situation.

Rather than simply standing down, the three agencies prefer to educate ministers and their congregations of the need for social distancing during the coronavirus pandemic and how indoor services fall short of meeting that goal. Still, they said they don't plan on citing anyone for violating the order.

Churches have been streaming their weekly services online or holding outdoor services since the stay-at-home order went into effect at the end of March. But a growing number of ministers are pressing to resume their indoor services, especially since state officials have allowed most businesses to reopen as long as they abide by social distancing and cleaning rules.

A conservative group filed a lawsuit against Gov. Roy Cooper on Thursday, alleging the restriction against indoor services violates the churches' First Amendment rights.

"I truly understand the plight of both sides," said Bishop Ronald Godbee, senior pastor of The River Church in Durham. "’I'm pastoring in a pandemic, and that's unique to all of us."

Godbee has been streaming services to his 1,200 members and said he plans to continue doing so for now.

"I want my congregation to see their pastor honoring and respecting and obeying the laws of the land," he said.

But Johnston County Sheriff Steve Bizzell, Harnett County Sheriff Wayne Coats, Halifax County Sheriff Wes Tripp and Moore County Sheriff Ronnie Fields are among those who say the laws of the land begin with the Constitution and its protections for religious liberty. They have publicly criticized the prohibition on indoor church services under the stay-at-home order and say their deputies won't enforce it.

The North Carolina Sheriffs's Association and the North Carolina Association of Chiefs of Police have both asked Cooper to relax the rule, but he said Thursday that he doesn't want churches to become a hotspot for coronavirus infections. People standing or sitting close together for long stretches, such as during a church service, are at risk for spreading the virus, the governor said.

Cooper's administration has allowed a loophole in th estay-at-home order that states, “In situations where it is not possible to conduct worship services outdoors or through other accommodations – such as through, for example, a series of indoor services of 10 or fewer attendees or through online services – the 10-person attendance limit on indoor worship services does not apply."

The sheriffs in Wake, Durham and Orange counties are urging compliance with the stay-at-home order but said they don't want use the threat of punishment to achieve it.

"I don’t think it’s ever going to get to a point where it leads to any actual problems that results in any enforcement action that we have to take," Wake County Sheriff Gerald Baker said.

Durham County Sheriff Clarence Birkhead met with local ministers early on during the pandemic about how to responsibly carry out church services, sheriff's office spokeswoman AnneMarie Breen said.

"There have not been any issues among Durham County’s religious community, and we do not anticipate any as we move forward with the governor’s phased opening approach," Breen said in an email.

Likewise, Orange County Sheriff Charles Blackwood wants to "educate and inform" local churches "rather than make arrests or cite those who aren’t complying," sheriff's office spokeswoman Alicia Stemper said.

"We plan to continue this approach, as we feel it is the best way to maintain our commitment to the health and safety of the people our agency is sworn to protect," Stemper said in an email.

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