Sheriff Bizzell: “Now, Let’s Have Church!”

SMITHFIELD – Johnston County Sheriff Steve Bizzell was among 12 North Carolina Sheriff’s who signed a May 8th resolution that was sent to Governor Roy Cooper asking him to allow citizens to gather in churches to hold worship services.

The resolution stated in part, “The sheriffs of North Carolina support our citizens and support and defend the constitutional right of all North Carolina citizens to practice their individual religion, peaceably assemble, and freely worship in their houses of worship and elsewhere, as provided for and protected by the Constitution of the United State and the North Carolina State Constitution…”

Cooper signed an Executive order on May 5th, that became effective on May 8th, allowing people to leave their homes for “allowable activities” including shopping at retail businesses not closed by a previous Executive Order.

The previous order prohibited mass gatherings of 10 persons at the same time in a single space. Gatherings for worship of 10 or more people are only allowed if they “take place outdoors unless impossible.”

“Many citizens have told sheriffs that they do not understand nor agree with the Governor’s limits on worship services that are more restrictive than the Governor’s limits on businesses and other allowable activities and the wording of these more restrictive limitations creates interpretation and enforcement issues for law enforcement.  The North Carolina Sheriffs’ Association respectfully requests that Governor Roy A. Cooper amend Executive Order No. 138 to provide that indoor worship services are not prohibited by Executive Order No. 138 if they adhere to similar requirements that allow for the operation of retail businesses,” the resolution stated.

The Resolution was signed by Richmond County Sheriff James E. Clemmons Jr. the NC Sheriffs’ Association Executive Committee Chairman, Brunswick County Sheriff John W. Ingram the President of the Sheriffs’ Association, Johnston County Sheriff Steve Bizzell, and 9 other North Carolina sheriff’s.

Governor Cooper’s office responded with a two page letter saying there is no limit on the number of people who can attend outdoor worship or wedding services but attendees should follow social distancing recommendations to prevent the transmission of COVID-19.  “Indoor worship services and wedding are allowed for gatherings of ten people or fewer in the same confined space. However, nothing prevents an indoor worship service from being shifted to multiple services over a period of time, or held in different rooms, to meet the requirements of the Phase One Order.”

“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 ten or fewer attendees, or through online services – the ten-person attendee limit on indoor worship services does not apply. For example, there may be situations in which particular religious believes dictate that some or all of a religious service must be held indoors and that more than ten persons must be in attendance. While indoors, participants should continue to adhere to the Recommendations to Promote Social Distancing and Reduce Transmission,”  the Governor’s office said in response.

On Wednesday, Johnston County Sheriff Steve Bizzell issued a statement to Johnston County Report entitled ‘Message From The Sheriff’:

“Our pastors and church leaders have been patient and have adhered to government authority thus far regarding the Governor’s restrictions on holding indoor worship services.”

“Church families are law abiding citizens, salt of the earth people that should stand in unison to protect our First Amendment rights to “assemble peaceably” and to exercise our freedom to worship.”

Johnston County Sheriff Steve Bizzell

“Retail businesses are allowed to operate daily under rules; however, church folks can’t even go to church once a week which is inconsistent and unfair, and quite frankly, morally wrong. All we’re asking the Governor is to allow indoor worship services with reasonable restrictions, somewhat similar to local retail businesses.”    

“If social distancing and other guidelines are good enough to allow big box stores to operate, why is it not good enough for in person church services?  It’s as though churches have been treated differently. For example, currently worship services are limited to 10 people, but 50 people can utilize the same space for a funeral.”

“I think our pastors and church leaders would be more inclined to implement safety guidelines for their brothers and sisters, even more so than businesses do for their customers. Why can’t churches be trusted to open and take precautions to protect their people’s health and well-being?”

“As Sheriff of Johnston County, the deputies and I took an oath that we would endeavor to support, maintain, and defend the Constitution for the people of this county. As long as I’m Sheriff, my deputies nor I will forego that oath and interfere or prevent church goers to peaceably assemble and exercise their constitutional right to freely worship. Before I would do that, I would lay down my badge and go home!”