Gaston County official says governor can’t keep worshipers out of church

GASTON COUNTY, N.C. — Gov. Roy Cooper’s order allows church services outside in parking lots, but also says churchgoers can go inside if having worship outside is impossible.

Defining what’s impossible is the loophole many want the governor to clear up, and others like Gaston County Commissioner Tracy Philbeck say the governor can’t keep people out of church.

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Philbeck posted his attendance at church Sunday on Facebook. In the pictures, there were far more than the 10 or fewer that state leaders said should be the max allowed for a group gathering right now.

But the commissioner said he has been attending in-house worship since the shutdown, despite the governor’s order that moved services outside.

"Number one I think the governor’s order is unconstitutional,” he said.

Heather Burks is a Gaston County resident who said weeks ago she talked to Philbeck and he promised not to skirt the law.

“He really should be a better role model,” she said.

Since then, Philbeck has encouraged local businesses to reopen before the governor’s order was lifted.

And now this.

“As an elected official he holds a different weight in his opinion. If someone else sees it, that will say the county commission is doing this so I can. And I think that puts a very dangerous precedent,” Burks said.

Channel 9 sent the photos to Dr. Ryan Sheldon of Tryon Medical Partners.

He said it looks like the congregation did a good job at social distancing, but all it takes is one droplet in a group gathered for more than 10 minutes.

“If somebody is carrying the virus and they are coughing and they are not wearing their mask and they are spraying it everywhere well then it is still a risk for everybody,” Sheldon said.

Republican state senators and the state sheriff’s association wrote a letter to the governor asking him to lift the ban.

A group of about 200 churches plan to sue Thursday to have the lockdown on churches removed.

Philbeck believes they will win.

The governor’s team said they are taking another look at that order to provide more clarity.

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