The recent US Supreme Court decision barring NY Governor Cuomo from targeting churches and synagogues is making waves here in Massachusetts. Yesterday, the City of New Bedford rescinded their May 22nd memorandum which restricted houses of worship to gatherings of only 100 people regardless of the size of the church building. Until yesterday, the city applied that limit even to New Life South Coast Church of New Bedford, which meets in a 48,000 square foot facility, formerly a Shaw’s Supermarket. However, at the 50% of building capacity authorized for houses of worship by the Governor’s COIVD orders, the church could safely allow close to 500 people to gather for services. Despite the church’s large size, the New Bedford department of health insisted that the church could not allow more than 100 people inside and threatened to hit the church with fines.
New Life South Coast’s pastor, Marco Debarros, contacted Attorneys at First Liberty and Massachusetts Family Institute, who quickly sent a letter to New Bedford Mayor Jonathan F. Mitchell, questioning the legality of the 100 person limit as “lack[ing] any rational basis in its application to a church like New Life South Coast…”
In an emailed response yesterday afternoon, the City formally rescinded their memorandum and cited Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn, New York v. Coumo, the Supreme Court decision issued the day before Thanksgiving which struck down similar restrictive limits on houses of worship in New York.
“I am thankful for New Bedford’s decision to follow the statewide standards for church occupancy and that churches in New Bedford are no longer subject to such unique and low occupancy limits,” responded First Liberty attorney Justin Butterfield. Referencing the same Supreme Court decision, Butterfield said, “As Justice Gorsuch recently noted, the government ‘is not free to disregard the First Amendment in times of crisis.’ It is important that we continue to ensure that churches are treated fairly as we all face COVID together.”
Andrew Beckwith, president and general counsel for the Massachusetts Family Institute, agreed, saying, “The government is barred by the First Amendment from treating religious gatherings worse than those in a secular context. Churches just want to be afforded the same trust, flexibility and capacity limits as non-religious activities, like grocery stores. In this case, the church was literally meeting in an old supermarket. As last week’s Supreme Court decision made clear, that kind of anti-religious discrimination cannot stand.”
New Life’s pastor Marco Debarros felt vindicated, saying, “The Church is the bedrock of society. We must fight for it’s rightful place of influence. We are still the light and salt of our generation.”
By forcing the city to rescind their 100 person limit, all churches in New Bedford are now free to follow the statewide standard for houses of worship (50% of building capacity) without fear of reprisal. Other local pastors had been watching and were grateful for this change.
“We all are in this pandemic together and taking people’s freedoms away only makes matters worse,” responded Pastor Victor Carrion from Church of Restoration & New Beginnings. “Freedom to gather and worship helps a lot of people deal with these uncertain times. Rescinding the mandate gives us a peace of mind that we still can enjoy our freedoms in this country and worship our God no matter what challenges we are facing as human beings!”