Sanford pastor remains defiant, engages religious liberty attorney

The Sanford pastor from a now infamous East Millinocket wedding continued his defiant stance on pandemic precautions this weekend, holding face-to-face services on Sunday. He also hired a high profile lawyer to defend his community's religious freedom.

Todd Bell, who officiated at the August 7 wedding and whose crowded reception at nearby Millinocket has been linked to more than a hundred cases of COVID-19, preached again to a personal congregation at Calvary Baptist Church on Sunday Internet audio Stream of services.

In a screenshot from a YouTube video of a service on August 30 at the Calvary Baptist Church in Sanford, Pastor Todd Bell speaks to his ward.

It was not clear how many people were in attendance and whether the Church was complying with the state limit of 50 people for indoor meetings because video was not available. However, a church official was heard directing those present to greet their neighbors in the ward.

Calvary Baptist himself has found 10 cases of COVID-19 in his ward, even though Bell continued to hold face-to-face services without masks or social distancing. This is evident from videos the Church posted online and have since retired.

Bell's stance divided the Sanford ward and led some organizations to stop working with Church outreach. Addressing the controversy in his Sunday address and a radio address on Friday, the pastor urged his followers to ignore critics and follow his interpretation of the Bible.

On Friday's radio address, Bell said he had a nationally known lawyer, David Gibbs III. Commissioned by the National Center for Life and Freedom to defend the religious rights of the Church. The NCLL describes itself as "a legal department protecting the rights of churches and Christian organizations across the country".

Gibbs confirmed in an email on Sunday that he works with the Calvary Baptist Church, but did not respond to questions about whether he was officially representing the Church and what legal issues he might be addressing.

Bell also did not provide these details in its radio address.

Gibbs represented the parents of Terri Schiavo, a Florida woman who was at the center of a nationwide controversy over whether to live indefinitely in a vegetative state in an ultimately unsuccessful attempt to prevent tube removal.

After Schiavo suffered severe brain damage from cardiac arrest in 1990, her husband Michael advocated giving her what he called a dignified death. Schiavo's parents and siblings struggled to keep her alive, and religious figures and organizations, as well as the Vatican, weighed against what they viewed as unacceptable euthanasia. After a long legal battle, Terri Schiavo died in March 2005, 13 days after the tube was removed.

Gibbs founded the NCLL in 2012, in part out of a desire to build institutional support for religious legal representation after the Schiavo case, according to the group's website. He is now President and General Counsel of the organization, which recorded more than $ 1 million in grants, gifts, and membership dues in 2013, 2014, and 2017, and near that number in 2015 and 2016 Tax returns.

Gibbs is the only employee in the organization who works more than an hour a week. This is evident from tax returns that fail to identify the group's key donors. The NCLL paid Gibbs legal fees of $ 493,380 in 2017.

In a post on the NCLL website, Gibbs advises churches to follow state and local regulations that masks must be worn during or at least on the way to worship. Courts are likely to obey pandemic-era governors' orders prescribing masks and restricting social gatherings, he said in his legal analysis.

Some churches in Maine and across the country have struggled against COVID-19 restrictions. In May, Orrington Calvary Chapel sued Governor Janet Mills' ban on holding personal services. A federal judge joined Mills, saying the state responded to the pandemic "by setting uniform standards and restrictions based on evolving scientific evidence." That arrangement has since been relaxed due to improved infection statistics and an increased willingness to fight the virus in Maine.

Churches in other states have also filed lawsuits against restrictions as violations of religious freedom. Grace Community Church in Los Angeles has been holding services for weeks, despite state and local restrictions on indoor gatherings, The Associated Press reported last month.

Maine Commissioner for Health and Human Services Jeanne Lambrew said last week that under the current Emergency Ordinance, the state has the power to protect public health, including when it comes to religious services.

"We have these enforcement tools and we will use them when necessary," she said, without specifying which ones they are.

On Sunday, Calvary Baptist's live Internet stream stated that there was again a personal participation. An assistant to Bell once encouraged those in attendance to say hello to their neighbors, and the recording showed parishioners talking.

Videos of Sunday services on August 30 and the previous Wednesday showed Church members standing close together and singing without a mask, contrary to recommendations from health officials.

Mills' Coronavirus Prevention Ordinance limits indoor gatherings to 50 people and outdoor gatherings to 100 and requires people to keep a physical distance at such gatherings. The Maine CDC also warns that "the projection of breath particles while singing, shouting, dancing, exercising and playing is increased", increasing the risk of transmission "particularly in crowded areas and indoors".

On Sunday, Bell said the church had continued to offer full-time courses through its affiliate youth academy. At a school orientation session last Thursday, God sent a "perfect rainbow" to confirm the decision, he said.

Much of the pastor's remarks on Sunday focused on how members of the Church should ignore criticism from outsiders who told him to "return to North Carolina," where he lived before moving to Maine in 1996.

"People think I'm crazy," he said in his sermon. "They really do and I'm glad to be here with friends today."

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