Plymouth Church is located in the City of Raleigh, which makes up much of Wake County, North Carolina. Plymouth’s pastor, Dr. Chris Partin, is struggling to assert his religious liberties in light of restrictions imposed by North Carolina’s Democratic Governor, Roy Cooper, and expanded on by local government. Recently, he came up with a creative idea to allow his congregants to have some semblance of religious freedom during Easter week. But government officials in North Carolina simply will not allow it.
Dr. Partin’s idea was simple. He wanted to do a so-called drive-through church on Easter with church staff remaining, not just six, but ten feet away from congregants at all times. The drive-through service would be little more than short readings of portions of the Easter story. Partin communicated this simple plan to Wake County Officials in the following simple email:
"Hi. I understand drive in churches are permitted. We want to do a drive through where we as a staff just say hello from a distance to our members and read in portions the Easter story in stations while being 10 ft or more away. People will not get out of their vehicles. Is this ok?
"Dr. Chris Partin."
The Wake County Attorney’s Office responded with a prompt rejection of the request. I have included highlights of the rejection letter below:
"A determination has been made that drive-in/drive-through church services are PROHIBITED and are NOT ALLOWED pursuant to Section 7 and Section 10(p) of the current Proclamation of Emergency Restrictions signed by the Chairman of the Wake County Board of Commissioners on March 26, 2020 (the "Proclamation.").
"Section 7 of the Proclamation states 'All public and private gatherings of any number of people, including non-Wake County residents, occurring outside of a single household or residential unit are prohibited, except for the purposes expressly permitted in Section 1 of this Proclamation.' Section 1 of the Proclamation requires that 'each Wake County resident remains in his/her/their household or residential living unit except as required or permitted for Essential Activities,' and the Proclamation does NOT include church attendance or attendance at faith organizations or institutions within its definition of 'Essential Activities.'"
In other words, the authorities in control in Wake County, North Carolina, are engaged in blatant viewpoint discrimination. And there is no need for it given the fact that even North Carolina’s far left governor sees no need for such stringent overreach. In fact, the N.C. Sheriffs’ Association has already asked Governor Cooper whether drive-in church services would be allowed under the state’s shelter in place order. In response, Cooper, told the sheriffs the following:
"I trust law enforcement’s judgment in directing people to abide by local and state health department guidance. These gatherings appear to be acceptable as long as individuals remain in their vehicles and avoid contact."
But herein lies the problem. The governor’s executive order is wrong for two reasons, not just one. First, it is overly restrictive in terms of what it mandates at the state level. Second, and perhaps more disturbing, it gives both counties and cities seemingly unlimited authority to issue even greater restrictions than the ones imposed by the governor. And Wake Country officials know that, which is why they told Partin the following:
"We are aware that this determination may differ with certain guidance that the Governor's Office has issued with respect to interpreting the State's Stay-at-Home Order, Executive Order 121, issued by Governor Cooper on March 27, 2020. However, Wake County's current Proclamation of Emergency Restrictions is more restrictive in some respects than the Governor's Executive Order 121, including on the issue addressed in the preceding paragraphs, and the Governor's Executive Order 121 clearly authorizes counties and cities to issue state of emergency declarations that impose greater restrictions or prohibitions than those imposed under the Governor's Executive Order 121, as Wake County has done in its Proclamation."
And there you have it. Unbridled discretion to shut down public worship by a county government that is freed by the governor to impose arbitrary demands on churches – such as that they operate with “minimal staff.” But don’t trust my interpretation. Read for yourself what Wake County Officials had to say:
"Since drive-in/drive-through church services would involve the presence of not just "minimal staff" but other individuals as well, they are prohibited under Section 10(p) of the (Wake County) Proclamation."
The Wake County proclamation specifically states that faith organizations and institutions may only be allowed to stay open “for the purpose of providing online distribution.” Violations of the county order could include fines and even jail time.
But what about this constitutes viewpoint discrimination as I have claimed above? It is pretty simple, actually. In addition to the government exempting government, the government also exempts newspapers, television, radio, and media services. Newspapers are free to distribute as they please. In fact, Wake County goes so far as to say that nothing in their Proclamation shall be construed to limit prohibit or restrict media operations in any way whatsoever. They are essential businesses but the Church is not. Thus the county has dissected the First Amendment in such a way as to choose certain clauses over others. Freedom of Press remains. Free exercise of religion is discarded.
It is a sad irony that the North Carolina County in which our liberties are being buried goes by the name of “wake.” The only question is whether the liberties that died this Easter will ever be resurrected.