Religious groups battle orders to close services

 

Several places of worship across the country are holding religious services for their congregations, and some are directly challenging state and local stay-at-home orders amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Most of the country is under a stay-at-home order, but a few of the 38 states that have issued such statewide restrictions have designated religious services as “essential,” which allows people to gather in larger groups to worship.

While many religious denominations have transferred their services online, some leaders say their in-person gatherings should be considered “essential.” Two pastors who held services this week have been arrested.

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Pastor Rodney Howard-Browne was charged with misdemeanor counts of unlawful assembly and violation of public health rules in Florida’s Hillsborough County after running services for hundreds of worshipers at the River at Tampa Bay Church.

The Liberty Counsel, which has represented evangelical Christians on the issue of religious liberty, is representing the pastor. Mat Staver, the group’s founder and chairman, said Hillsborough County’s stay-at-home order was unconstitutional.

The county’s order says businesses not listed as exempt can remain open if they can keep a physical distance of six feet between people, he said. The River enforced social distancing rules for its service and purchased a $100,000 purification system.

“So there are ways in which you can balance the constitutional right to exist with protecting the health and welfare and safety of the people. And this church did that and yet it got punished,” Staver said.

Staver also pointed out that some congregants do not have internet access, saying they need religious services and a community to deal with the stress of the pandemic. 

Hillsborough County Sheriff Chad Chronister said during a Monday press conference that Howard-Brown was acting out of a “reckless disregard for human life.”

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But two days after Howard-Browne’s arrest, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantisRon DeSantisTrump faces tricky choice on Supreme Court pick DeSantis wants to protect college students from punishment for not following COVID-19 rules Texas governor proposes stiffer penalties for organizing, participating in 'riots' MORE (R) issued a statewide stay-at-home order that specifically exempted religious services. 

Eleven states, out of the 38 that have issued statewide stay-at-home orders, have granted exemptions for religious gatherings: Arizona, Colorado, Delaware, Florida, Kentucky, Michigan, New Mexico, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Wisconsin. 

Almost a fifth of respondents to a poll last week said they were still attending religious gatherings in person, BuzzFeed News reported.

Another pastor, Tony Spell, was arrested after operating services in Central, La., for the Life Tabernacle Church. He was charged with six counts of violating the governor’s executive order. Louisiana has not exempted religious gatherings. 

Pastor Juan Bustamante of City On A Hill Church in Houston filed a petition in the Texas Supreme Court, along with two pastors and a conservative activist, asking for Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo’s stay-at-home order to be adjusted to classify religious services as essential.

Bustamante said places of worship should be designated as essential at a time when people are losing jobs and some are on the verge of suicide. The pastor said he has taken precautions for his congregation of 100 to 120 people, such as splitting services into three services, with some outside, to limit the virus’s spread. 

“When people say that the church isn’t essential, I mean, I don't really believe they know the extremity or the effect that it has on our communities,” he said. “I believe that our community suffers most when our churches are closed.”

Days after the lawsuit was filed, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) declared religious services essential in his order recommending people stay at home. 

Rachel Laser, the president and CEO of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, called the religious exemptions “unconstitutional” and ”immoral” because religious institutions in these states are being treated differently than secular groups. 

“They've got it backwards because the Constitution requires that religious and secular institutions be treated the same,” she said. 

Religious freedom experts agreed that the state laws regulating religious meetings during a pandemic do not violate the First Amendment because the government has a “compelling interest” to protect the public health of the country.

Benjamin Marcus, a religious literacy specialist at the Religious Freedom Center at the Freedom Forum Institute, said executive orders would violate the First Amendment if they forbade groups from gathering online or if law enforcement “disproportionately targeted” certain groups.

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“If they allowed nonreligious communities to gather in large groups but not religious communities or vice versa, then that would be a different kind of scenario where they would be favoring religion over nonreligion or vice versa,” he said.

Luke Goodrich, the vice president and senior counsel at the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, said every constitutional right has its limits and that most courts would support the government in these cases as the orders appear not to target specific groups. 

He cautioned that people should avoid “crying wolf” on religious freedom violations because it could inhibit freedom in the long run. 

“It’s really important to be able to distinguish between a real threat to religious freedom and a mere shadow of a threat,” he said. 

Leana Wen, an emergency physician and public health professor at George Washington University, said the public health guidelines require more than solely staying six feet apart, with mandates of no gatherings of more than 10 people. 

“Viruses do not — they do not distinguish between what kind of gatherings they are, so there should be no exceptions because there are no exceptions,” she said. “Nature does not offer exceptions either.”

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More than 40 attendees of a March 15 service at one Pentecostal church in Illinois have developed coronavirus symptoms, with at least 10 testing positive for COVID-19 and at least one person dying, the Chicago Tribune and The Christian Post reported.

Vice President Pence, a devout Christian, has encouraged Americans to avoid church services with more than 10 people.

“We really believe this is a time when people should avoid gatherings of more than 10 people,” he said on ABC News’s “Nightline” on Wednesday. “We continue to urge churches around America to heed to that.”