[guest post by Dana]
California churches in revolt:
Buoyed by a letter from the U.S. Justice Department to Gov. Gavin Newsom that emphasizes the right to worship, a lawyer for a church suing over California’s coronavirus ban on in-person services says he expects thousands of congregations to return to their churches a week from Sunday.
The move comes as the fight over whether the state has the right to prohibit church services for now has moved to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, where a Lodi church is seeking an emergency injunction against the ban, and as hundreds of pastors have signed a petition declaring that their services are “essential.”
“More than 1,200 pastors have signed the ‘declaration of essentiality’ that we were asked to put together,” said attorney Robert Tyler, one of the lawyers fighting for the right of Lodi’s Cross Culture Christian Center to reopen. “We expect more than 3,000 individual churches to open May 31, with or without permission.”
Here is the gist of the argument, according to Tyler:
We are not trying to say that churches are somehow exempted from engaging in protective measures that are required of secular enterprises. We are simply saying that it’s unconstitutional to require that churches stay closed when they can engage in the same protective measures as a grocery store, restaurant or other similar businesses.
This lines up with Eric S. Dreiband, assistant attorney general for the U.S. Justice Department’s civil rights division, who wrote:
The Department of Justice does not seek to dictate how States such as California determine what degree of activity and personal interaction should be allowed to protect the safety of their citizens. However, we are charged with upholding the Constitution and federal statutory protections for civil rights.
Whichever level of restrictions you adopt, these civil rights protections mandate equal treatment of persons and activities of a secular and religious nature.
Tyler claims that churches that meet on May 31 will observe social distancing measures. Meh. At this point, Tyler is just hoping for the best case scenario.
Anyway, California is currently in Phase 2 of the state’s reopening plan. In-person church services are set to resume during Phase 3 of the state’s plan.
Other states are wrestling with when to reopen their churches. Some states are even looking further into the future, as with Pennsylvania:
State Rep. Eric Nelson, R-Westmoreland, said religious leaders have been confused about whether churches are affected by state-mandated coronavirus shutdowns.
“Our religious community is very confused. They don’t want to violate a law, but they’re also extremely frustrated,” he said.
Nelson and Rep. Clint Owlett, R-Tioga, introduced House Bill 2530, which would amend the state’s Religious Freedom Protection Act of 2002 to prohibit the limitation of religious gatherings during a state of emergency.
New Jersey pastors want to see churches be identified as “essential” and not “non-essential”:
Several South Jersey pastors say they answer to a higher power and want to reopen their doors, even if Governor Phil Murphy has prohibited church services.
Pastor Charles Clark, of Solid Rock Baptist Church in Berlin, said the United States Constitution gives him the right, and the Bible gives him the mandate to invite parishioners back to the pews.
“Walmart is open, the pet store is open, the bicycle repair shop is open, and all are considered essential, but the church has been closed,” he said.
Clark’s attorney sent a letter to Murphy demanding that the status of churches in the Garden State be switched from non-essential to essential.
Even as the state slowly begins to reopen, Murphy has made it clear that until there’s a vaccine or treatment, mass gatherings, including church services, will likely remain restricted.
“Inside, no ventilation, close contact, it’s a hard nut to crack. We’re just not there yet,” he said.
Just days ago, a report came out that the CDC linked an Arkansas church service to a coronavirus outbreak. This occurred before nationwide social-distancing guidelines were implemented:
A Centers for Disease Control study released Tuesday found that 38% of 92 attendees at events held at an Arkansas church in early March tested positive for Covid-19, underscoring the risks of public gatherings as states reopen.
According to the study, 35 of the attendees tested positive for Covid-19, while 3 have died; another 26 cases and another additional death were linked to the church’s outbreak.
The church’s pastor and his wife developed coronavirus symptoms and indefinitely closed the church March 12, 2020. .
The question of churches being able to hold in-person services during the pandemic has been a polarizing one – and a political one as well. According to reports, the reopening guidelines for churches was delayed because of a conflict between the Trump administration and the CDC: how would Trump’s base receive limitations on in-person services?:
CDC draft guidance on houses of worship was the subject of much internal debate at the White House last month. Some aides did not want any guidance for religious institutions. Others thought recommendations were too restrictive.
In the end, the decision to hold back reopening guidance for religious institutions came from some White House and coronavirus task force officials who did not want to alienate the faithful and believed that some of the proposals, such as limits on hymnals, the size of choirs or the passing of collection plates, were too restrictive, according to two administration officials.
Trump and Vice President Pence have maintained close ties to conservative religious leaders during the shutdown, scheduling private calls and asking for support as they try to reopen the nation, the officials said.
Officials in Pence’s office, the Office of Management and Budget and the Domestic Policy Council raised concerns about the guidelines for religious institutions, the officials said.
There were conversations about scaling back the guidelines, but after weeks of discussion, they were left out entirely, one of these officials said. At one point, officials discussed various religious groups and even called pastors and other religious leaders to see if they could shape the guidelines in accordance with “faith traditions,” according to one senior administration official.
The White House wants to get the churches opened up again, but they are not planning on issuing any issue any guidance for religious institutions at this time. White House spokesman Judd Deere said that
President Trump and “all Americans want to see their churches safely open again. Not only is it good for the community, it’s their right under the Constitution to worship freely without government intrusion. The Trump administration will always protect that right and continue to partner with states to ensure congregations are properly protected as restrictions are responsibly eased.”