Gov. Cooper on defensive after latest threats for legal action

RALEIGH (WTVD) -- Governor Roy Cooper on Thursday lobbied churchgoers to keep the faith in his leadership amid a growing chorus of challenges to his executive orders, including two lawsuits filed in court and another group threatening litigation.

"One fundamental tenant of faith is to care for and love one another," Cooper asserted at an afternoon news conference. "When doing these things in person together, sitting or standing indoors more than 10 minutes, we greatly increase the chances of passing to each other a virus that can be deadly.

The latest lawsuit, filed Thursday in the U.S. District Court for Eastern District of North Carolina, accuses the governor of violating the U.S. Constitution by "virtually banning religious assembly" through his Executive Orders and inhibiting the freedom of religion.

"Absent emergency relief from this Court," the complaint argues, "(parishioners) will suffer immediate and irreparable injury from the threat of civil and criminal prosecution for the mere act of gathering for the free exercise of religion and in assembling for worship."

The federal suit follows a second legal challenge filed in Lenoir County from residents challenging the Executive Order on utilities.

A third suit, which could be filed as early as Monday, is being mounted by a group of hair stylists and small businesses.

"People have the inalienable right to earn a living," attorney S.C. Kitchen says in a letter to Cooper on behalf of his clients, the Hair is Essential Association. "Neither you nor the State have the right to preclude citizens using their own means from pursuing their chosen vocation."

There are other challenges against Stay at Home orders across the country, including Wisconsin, where the state's Supreme Court struck down Governor Tony Evers' orders late Wednesday, paving the way for businesses like bars to open almost immediately.

Legal experts, though, warning the Wisconsin case will not be a benchmark for other suits across the country because the decision was based on a technicality in that the governor delegated power to a member of his cabinet and not consult with legislators.

Kevin Lee, a professor at Campbell Law School in Raleigh, tells ABC11 the governor has "sweeping powers" in an emergency, whether it's a pandemic or severe weather.

"In terms of executive power, you have to think of the context and in the context of protecting the health and welfare of the state," Lee explains. "We have to be realistic and realize that this is a crisis and there's been a number of public health officials to find this to be necessary."

Instead, the line between what's legal and what's not is if the governor, or the party in power, personally benefit from decisions, such as delaying elections.

"Where I think you get in trouble is when you see the state exercising police power to maintain its own legitimacy and authority to maintain the regime and exercising it in a crisis and seizing that opportunity in a crisis to maintain its own regime."

Still, judges and juries are tough to predict, and Lee suggests a decision against Cooper could upend how the government works in a crisis.

"It would end up with the court having to deal with emergency situations and courts are really ill-disposed to make those judgments which required depth of knowledge of policy and scientific principles. To run to court every time to make a decision is time-consuming and the decisions that need to be made need to be made immediately to protect the welfare of the citizens."
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