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Worcester pastor sues governor, city officials over COVID-19 gathering ban

Pastor Kristopher D. Casey waved the American flag after leading people in a song outside Adams Square Baptist Church on Sunday, May 3.
Pastor Kristopher D. Casey waved the American flag after leading people in a song outside Adams Square Baptist Church on Sunday, May 3.Christine Peterson/Associated Press

The pastor of a Worcester church that has held services the past three Sundays in violation of Governor Charlie Baker’s coronavirus-related ban on large gatherings filed a federal lawsuit Wednesday against Baker and Worcester’s city manager and police chief, court documents show.

The Rev. Kristopher Casey, pastor of Adams Square Baptist Church, is scheduled to go before a U.S. District Court judge Friday afternoon in a video-conference hearing to request a temporary restraining order allowing him to reopen the church’s doors.

The lawsuit filed by Casey and the church claims that Baker’s March 23 ban on gatherings of more than 10 people, including houses of worship, violates freedom of religion protected by the First Amendment.

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Casey’s filing argues that the emergency order unfairly closes churches while allowing entities designated by the state as essential businesses to remain open, including “liquor stores, licensed medical marijuana retailers, transportation carriers, grocery stores,” and others.

The suit also accuses Worcester police of making “a show of unwarranted intimidation” although people attending services wore masks, gloves, and sat more than 6-feet apart, as suggested in the state’s social distancing guidelines.

Worcester police also fined the church and filed a criminal complaint against it, alleging violation of the emergency order, the suit said.

Casey and his attorney could not be reached Thursday evening. Representatives for Baker did not immediately respond to a request for comment. A spokesman for Worcester Police Chief Steven M. Sargent said the police department does not generally comment on pending litigation.

In late April, Worcester Mayor Joseph M. Petty and City Manager Edward M. Augustus Jr. criticized Casey’s decision to hold a service that, according to the Worcester Telegram & Gazette, drew 56 people.

Augustus said in a letter to Casey then that hosting gatherings of more than 10 “flies in the face of the best medical advice at this time and increases the very real chance of contact spread of the virus to countless others.”

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In early May, Worcester officials said they would impose a $300 civil fine on Casey after the church violated the ban for the second time. On Sunday, Casey held a third service that drew more than 10 people.

Worcester officials declined Sunday to say what action the city would take. The next day, according to the lawsuit, the city served Casey with a criminal complaint for violating the emergency order the previous Sunday.

Augustus said during a daily COVID-19 briefing Thursday that the city had been served notice of the lawsuit.

“We are in receipt of those documents, and we will be handling them like we do any other lawsuit,” he said. “So I’m not intending on commenting any further about this, given the fact that this will be handled through the court system.”

A Worcester spokesman declined to comment on the lawsuit later Thursday.

Worcester had 124 new confirmed cases of the virus Thursday, Augustus said during the briefing, for a total of 3,206. Augustus also reported an additional eight deaths from COVID-19, bringing Worcester’s death toll to 201.

Casey has been perhaps the most vocal among hundreds of faith leaders across the state who have called for Baker to reopen houses of worship.

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More than 260 pastors signed a letter last week calling on Baker to include churches among the first wave of establishments allowed to reopen after his emergency order expires Monday.

But organizations representing thousands of other churches, synagogues, and mosques have said they want to work with state officials and public health experts to plan a cautious reopening so services do not spread COVID-19 among congregants, their families, and the wider communities they serve.

On Tuesday, a delegation led by the Greater Boston Interfaith Organization told the state’s Reopening Advisory Board that they want to work together and chart a careful course for reopening — and did not discuss a timetable, said the Rev. Ray A. Hammond, pastor of Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Jamaica Plain.

The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Boston, which was represented at Tuesday’s meeting, also opposes a rush to reopen.

In a letter to the archdiocesan community Thursday, Bishop Peter Uglietto, the archdiocese’s vicar general, said it will probably be June or later before Catholics can return to Mass, and it is “practically impossible” to say now when it will be safe, according to the Boston Pilot.

“While there is great anticipation about being able to reopen our Churches, we are not at that point yet and it will likely be several more weeks before we can begin to implement our own phased-in plans to resume public Masses,” Uglietto said.

Adams Square Baptist Church has met almost every week since its founding 130 years ago, according to court documents filed by Casey. The congregation, which typically consists of 75 to 125 people at a Sunday service, believes “that failure to assemble is a sin in violation of God’s commands," according to the documents.

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The church’s bylaws allow for automatic termination of any member who misses services for six months straight, and several members have been ejected since Casey became pastor in 2012, his attorneys write.

Casey alleges that, if not allowed to return to church without threat of penalties, he and his members “will suffer immediate and irreparable injury from the threat of civil and criminal prosecution for the mere act of engaging in the free exercise of religion and in assembling for worship.”


Jeremy C. Fox can be reached at jeremy.fox@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jeremycfox.