The recent reaction by the North Carolina Sheriff’s Association (NCSA) asking Governor Cooper to clarify and amend his executive order restricting meetings for religious services is an example of the governor’s continuing leadership failures as he attempts to guide the state through the COVID-19 pandemic. The reaction to this poorly designed directive has resulted in a dismissal of his actions by law enforcement officers and a federal lawsuit by various state church groups, actions that embarrasses both the man and his office.
On May 5, Governor Cooper issued Executive Order 138 entitled “Easing Restrictions on Travel, Business Operations and Mass Gatherings: Phase 1” which singled out churches directing them not to meet in groups of 10 or more. The order went on to recommend outdoor services, virtual online services or to meet in small groups of 10 or less indoors. The order did offer one allowance for meeting in large groups indoors and that was under the circumstance that the other options proved to be “impossible.”
The NCSA’S reaction to the executive order is an embarrassment for the governor. He put his chief law enforcement officers in every county of the state in a position to determine the propriety of actions that are in fact protected under the Constitution - the right of assembly and freedom of religion - with an arbitrary restriction and nebulous guidelines.
The arbitrary nature of his executive order was particularly egregious considering similar restrictions do not apply to large retailers where visitors are not restricted such as Lowe’s Home Improvement and Walmart to name a few. The order was further ambivalent since it did accommodate indoor worship services in cases where other efforts proved to be “impossible.” The question of what qualified those situations as impossible was unclear.
According to Carteret County Sheriff Asa Buck, past president and current board member of NCSA, sheriffs across the state heard complaints and questions demanding clarity as to what justified indoor meetings. He noted in a recent statement that, “There was a concern that churches have been impacted with a more restrictive burden than has been imposed upon retail businesses. We believe the churches should be treated equally and allowed to make their own determinations, based on solid guidance as to how to conform with the executive orders and implement common sense solutions utilizing social distancing and sanitization measures the same as our retail businesses have been afforded.”
Following a unanimous resolution from the NCSA executive board the governor attempted to amend his executive order but still with little clarity for interpretation by law enforcement officers. The absence of clarity and the question of constitutionality of the order has resulted in many sheriffs announcing they will ignore the regulation unless forced to pursue complaints by the state. Even then there is little interest in applying any punitive action.
The governor now faces a lawsuit from state religious groups. David Gibbs, president of the Christian Law Association filed a federal lawsuit seeking reversal of the governor’s mandate because of the absence of clarity.
The culmination of this action, or arguably inaction, by the state Sheriffs Association and the now active lawsuits heightens a growing contempt for the law and the office of governor. As noted in previous editorials, contempt of the law is destructive to society and civil discourse which should concern the governor and all elected officials.
All of these issues could have and can be mitigated, if not completely avoided, if the governor will only work with the various stakeholders and the citizens of the state in his efforts to respond to the pandemic. Action which to date has not occurred.
This event brings to mind the memorable phrase in the iconic movie Cool Hand Luke, in which the captain, portrayed by Strother Martin, standing over a stream of convicts, notes “What we’ve got here is (a) failure to communicate.” As long as the governor refuses to communicate and is unwilling to engage with the stakeholders, both private and public, the more he loses respect and effectiveness.