Florida, other states allowing church services during coronavirus pandemic draw criticism

Florida this week joined the states directing residents to stay home to help reduce spread of the coronavirus but carving out exemptions for religious services, drawing criticism as the federal government advises against gathering in groups of more than 10.

The stay-at-home order issued by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantisRonald Dion DeSantisFlorida emerges as world's new epicenter for COVID-19 Overnight Health Care: CDC to issue more guidance on school openings amid Trump criticism | Supreme Court upholds birth control coverage exemptions | US surpasses 3 million coronavirus infections GOP Miami mayor does not commit to voting for Trump MORE (R) on Wednesday directs Floridians to stay home except to obtain or provide essential services. Attending services conducted in houses of worship is listed under the definition of "essential activities.”

Florida is among several states issuing orders for people to avoid leaving their homes but granting certain exemptions for religious services over concerns that forcing houses of worship to close would violate the constitutional right to religious freedom.

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Michigan, New Mexico, Delaware, Ohio, Texas and West Virginia have also allowed some exemption for religious services.

Other states with stay-at-home orders, such as Virginia and Maryland, are requiring places of worship to limit in-person services to 10 people to comply with bans on large gatherings while adhering to physical distancing measures. Many houses of worship across the country have voluntarily ceased holding public services.

The religious exemption granted in DeSantis's stay-at-home order comes after a Florida pastor was arrested Monday for holding services at his Tampa megachurch in violation of a ban on large gatherings.

After holding two Sunday services with up to 500 people, Pastor Rodney Howard-Browne was charged with misdemeanor counts of unlawful assembly and violation of a county-wide order.

Browne later closed the church, saying on his livestream call-in show, "I have to do this to protect the congregation — not from the virus but from a tyrannical government."

Hillsborough County Sheriff Chad Chronister said that Browne's decision to proceed with in-person services showed a "reckless disregard for human life."

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"They have access to technology allowing them to livestream their services over the internet and broadcast to their 400 members from the safety of their own homes, but instead they chose to gather at church," Chronister said.

DeSantis had been reluctant for weeks to issue a stay-at-home order for the whole state, instead initially issuing restrictions for parts of south Florida that had been particularly affected by the coronavirus.

Last week, DeSantis ordered state public health officials to issue an advisory urging the public to avoid social or recreational gatherings of more than 10 people in accordance with federal guidelines.

The other essential activities defined in the stay-at-home order issued by DeSantis include participating in outdoor recreational activities "consistent with social distancing guidelines" as well as taking care of pets and caring for friends and loved ones.

Houses of worship remaining open have sparked worries of violating the intention of social distancing guidelines.

“We recognize that many people find solace in attending religious services, especially during uncertain times such as these, and thus share in the deep sorrow that the already challenging coronavirus situation also means temporarily halting in-person religious services,” Rachel Laser, president and CEO of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, said this week. “But when health experts and public officials determine that large gatherings must be cancelled for the public good, we must follow their lead and apply these guidelines to secular and religious gatherings equally."

The concerns are all the more acute after some religious-based gatherings in recent weeks appeared to lead to spikes in coronavirus cases. Nearly three dozen people who attended a children's event at a church in Arkansas tested positive for the coronavirus, according to the Arkansas Democrat Gazette.

And in Sacramento, Calif., local health officials said Wednesday that about a third of the county's confirmed coronavirus cases are linked to gatherings related to churches.

In Texas, an order issued by Gov. Greg Abbott (R) this week advising people to stay home as much as possible also deemed services at places of worship as essential. That supersedes previous orders made by some local officials that prohibited places of worship from holding in-person services and encouraged conducting religious services remotely, according to the San Antonio Express-News.

Abbott said that religious services should be conducted remotely or with physical distancing guidelines if they are done in person.

Ohio churches are not prohibited from holding services, either. One megachurch has pledged to remain open and has continued to hold large gatherings, according to local media.

When asked about the church continuing to stay open, Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine (R) warned that "any pastor who brings people together in close proximity to each other, a large group of people, is making a huge mistake."

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In New Mexico, a public health order specifically states that its ban on mass gatherings of five or more individuals does not apply when those individuals are congregated in houses of worship.

Vice President Pence, a devout Christian, urged Americans to avoid religious services with more than 10 people in an interview that aired Wednesday.

"We really believe this is a time when people should avoid gatherings of more than 10 people," Pence said in an interview with ABC News's "Nightline." "And so, we continue to urge churches around America to heed to that."