- While most of the country remains under phased social distancing orders to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, some faith leaders across the US are making a First Amendment case to open up places of worship.
- Three pastors explained to Business Insider why they’re fighting to open up.
- “I’m not afraid to get COVID-19 when I go to Home Depot and neither should anyone be afraid when they come to church,” one pastor, Diego Mesa, put it.
- On Friday, President Donald Trump said he would force governors to open up places of worship, even though he doesn’t have the authority to do so.
- Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.
Diego Mesa was driving in Southern California on Thursday evening when he passed shops selling donuts, clothes, and cannabis.
It boggles his mind that these businesses were marked as essential and permitted to reopen on May 8, as Gov. Gavin Newsom’s reopening plan moved into its second stage. Churches, however, were shelved until the plan’s third phase — lumped in with personal care, exercise, and entertainment facilities.
“Our ideals differ in what we view as essential,” Mesa told Business Insider. “When we are deemed as non-essential, there’s an agenda there.”
But this isn’t about who’s right and who’s wrong, he added.
“Opening church is not the issue,” Mesa said. “It’s about whether I have the right to open the church. And, according to the First Amendment, I do.”
As the pastor of the Abundant Living Family Church in Rancho Cucamonga, Mesa is among more than 1,200 religious leaders in California who’ve signed a Declaration of Essentiality for Churches, vowing to host in-person services on May 31, Pentecost Sunday, with or without Newsom’s blessing.
Attorney Robert Tyler is representing the Cross Culture Christian Center in Lodi in a lawsuit against Newsom, alleging that the state’s public gathering ban violates religious freedom granted by the First Amendment.
He told Business Insider that next Sunday’s act of civil disobedience was sparked by religious leaders seeking recourse amid the pandemic.
“They began to say that this order by the governor has gone too far and too long,” he said. “The governor is deciding based upon his own subjective decisions as to what he thinks is essential and what is not essential. At some point in time, we have to be allowed to get over the fear and allow these essential ministries to meet again.”
As of Friday, the coronavirus has infected 1.58 million Americans and killed 95,276, according to Johns Hopkins University.
But, Tyler said, the disease and virus-related deaths are one part of this crisis. The other part encompasses unemployment, economic and financial hardships, isolation, depression, addictions, suicide, and other traumas.
“The pastors are seeing a huge need and have decided that they need to take a stand and do what God’s called them to do,” Tyler said. “And they will do so using all appropriate safety precautions recommended by the CDC and local governments, just as Costco and Walmart are required to do.”
In April, the Justice Department got involved in a federal lawsuit brought by a church in Greenville, Mississippi, over local officials’ efforts to stop drive-in services in a bid to reduce the spread of the coronavirus. “Religious institutions must not be singled out for special burdens,” Attorney General William Barr wrote then.
If authorities allow concert halls, cinemas, and restaurants to resume business, they can’t stop houses of worship from doing the same, he said.
“Even in times of emergency, when reasonable and temporary restrictions are placed on rights, the First Amendment and federal statutory law prohibit discrimination against religious institutions and religious believers,” Barr wrote. “Thus, government may not impose special restrictions on religious activity that do not also apply to similar nonreligious activity.”
On Tuesday, Eric S. Dreiband, the head of the Justice Department’s civil rights division, echoed the sentiment. Newsom’s current plan to reopen California demonstrates “unequal treatment of faith communities” and “discriminates against religious exercise,” he wrote.
“Simply put, there is no pandemic exception to the U.S. Constitution and its Bill of Rights,” Dreiband added.
In Europe, and elsewhere in the world, many places of worship have already been permitted to reopen with safety measures in place.
But Tyler’s legal efforts haven’t been successful so far. In a ruling on May 5, a federal judge in Sacramento denied a request from the Cross Culture Christian Center to reopen.
“Even in times of health, government officials must often strike the delicate balance between ensuring public safety and preserving the Constitution’s fundamental guarantees,” US District Judge John A. Mendez wrote in his ruling. “But during public health crises, new considerations come to bear, and government officials must ask whether even fundamental rights must give way to a deeper need to control the spread of infectious disease and protect the lives of society’s most vulnerable.”
Tyler is now moving the fight to the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit Court, where he’s hoping the judges will weigh in his favor.
“We’re asking the Ninth Circuit to rule that the governor’s order treats churches unlawfully by not allowing religious assemblies to meet on the same terms and conditions as secular organizations,” he said.
On Friday, President Donald Trump entered the cultural fray. He announced plans to designate houses of worship as essential services and told them they can open immediately — even though he doesn’t have the legal authority to override state rules.
“I call upon governors to allow our churches and places of worship to open right now … These are places that hold our society together and keep our people united, the people are demanding to go to church and synagogues, go to their mosque,” he said.
Several super-spreader events in the United States and South Korea have been traced back to places of worship, where large numbers gather indoors. In Texas, the Holy Ghost Catholic Church reopened its doors on May 2. But less than two weeks later, all services had been called off indefinitely after five members of the congregation tested positive for COVID-19 and a priest who died on May 13 may have had it as well. In Mississippi, the First Pentecostal Church was burned down on Wednesday after drawing criticism for violating stay-at-home orders by holding an in-person service on Easter.
Asked if he’s concerned by the possibility of parishioners contracting or spreading the virus during in-person services, Tyler said everything in life comes with some amount of risk.
“I think it is probably more likely for someone to die in a car accident than of COVID-19 in many parts of California,” he said. “The church isn’t saying we want to meet just because we think we have a constitutional right to do so — we want to meet because there are so many important needs of the community that need to be addressed.”
“Individuals need to be able to come together, to love and support one other again, while taking all the same precautions that any secular enterprise would,” he added.
Pastor Paul Chappell of Lancaster Baptist Church told Business Insider that it’s been over 10 weeks since he’s been able to minister in person to the church’s nearly 7,000 members.
During the pandemic, he’s used Zoom to livestream services, and the church’s staff has prepared meals for elderly community members and dropped off lunches at local hospitals. Other services, like youth meetings and marriage and crisis counseling have been paused.
Hundreds of pastors across the state have been “very compliant” with the stay-at-home orders, Chappell said, because the Bible encourages them to “obey and support authorities.” However, he said, it also contains “scriptural commands to assemble.”
“The general idea is that if the Walmart just down the street can have 300 shoppers,” Chappell said, “then a church with similar square footage could use the same generally accepted practices and provide worship for the people. We believe that churches are as competent to accomplish this task as any other service industry.”
Next Sunday, churchgoers at Lancaster Baptist will be asked to wear face masks and gloves and will have their temperatures taken as they enter. Chappell said the church will enforce social distancing measures, allowing only up to 20% of the church’s maximum occupancy, and that he’ll host four instead of the regular two services. Also, he said, electrostatic sprayers will be used to sanitize the campus after each of the small services.
Chappell said there’s always concern about people falling sick, but they need to be weighed with the need to worship.
“Our rights are concerning to us as well and we have a biblical mandate to worship,” he said. “We’ve been patient, but we feel in our conscience that it’s getting to a point where we would need to follow the scriptures.”
According to Chappell, a breakdown in communication between government leaders and clergymen has made this an increasingly politicized issue. But the goal, he said, isn’t to make a fuss: It’s to simply move forward with “humble resolve.”
“I would say to someone who opposes our decision that they have every right to abstain from worship and we have every right to worship — that’s the greatness of this country,” he said.
For his part, Mesa has turned to technology to stay connected with over his church’s over 15,000 members. Their viewership numbers have been “off the charts,” he said. And a lot of that traffic is coming from people who have been affected by the coronavirus and are turning to religion for community, hope, and answers.
However, Mesa said, there’s a discernible difference between people “watching a screen where they see a fire log versus an actual fireplace.”
Many elderly longtime parishioners of Abundant Living Family Church don’t have the digital know-how to be able to log into Zoom or Facebook Live. “Their relief has been cut off,” said Mesa, who’s been calling them on the phone every week and delivering groceries to their doorsteps.
“Many of them go to their windows or balconies and say, ‘It is just so wonderful to see your face,’ or ‘I’m a widow and I miss my spiritual family,’ or ‘I’m lonely, this is the highlight of my week,'” Mesa said.
Others who are suffering in silence are healthcare workers who toil for long hours on the frontline of the pandemic, where they’re inundated with sickness, trauma, death, and even suicides.
Many are sleeping in hotels or garages, separated from their loved ones, in an effort to protect them from the virus.
Mesa quoted one nurse, who told him: “I need my church community because I’m giving, I’m giving, I’m giving, I’m helping to pour into the lives of others, but my cup is running dry.”
So, Mesa said, he feels confident in the robust safety guidelines of his church, which mirrors Chappell’s.
“At the end of the day, I’m not afraid to get COVID-19 when I go to Home Depot and neither should anyone be afraid when they come to church,” Mesa said. “Number one, the infection and mortality rates are down, and number two, we’re exercising optimum cleanliness and sanitation that is far beyond what you would get anywhere else.”
Even though Abundant Living Family Church can seat up to 4,000 worshippers, Mesa is also planning to ask the congregation to reserve seats online because only 700 people will be allowed to sit in the pews on May 31.
People who are over 65 years old or have underlying health conditions are being asked to stay home as are those who simply feel uncomfortable.
“As much as the governor is a servant of the state, I am a servant of God,” said Mesa. “As a governor, he has a term limit. We have signed lifetime commitments to serve the people that he is supposed to be working for, so he needs to allow us to do that.”
Religious leaders in California have garnered attention for turning to litigation and defiance over state moratoriums on religious gatherings.
But this friction is showing up across the rest of the country as well.
Pastor Brian Gibson of HIS Church, which has two campuses in Kentucky and another two in Texas, founded the PeaceablyGather.com movement to speak out on behalf of religious freedom that’s enshrined by the Constitution. On Sunday, he’ll be in Chicago alongside Pastor Joseph Wyrostek at the Elim Romanian Pentecostal Church.
“Every day a house of worship is closed, a little bit of liberty dies,” he said. “We have a constitutional crisis in America and if Americans don’t speak up and speak out, the fabric of our nation is going to be torn in a way that can’t be repaired.”
Gibson described feeling enraged when he was stopped from hosting a drive-through Easter Egg giveaway service, where social distancing was going to be followed and church staff members were protected with masks and gloves.
Meanwhile, he said, across the street and within viewing distance of the church, baristas were making lattes, fast food restaurants were serving fries, and people were buying liquor.
“But the message to us was the church isn’t smart enough to give kids candy in the name of Jesus,” he said. “We started asking ourselves: Is this fair? Is this constitutional? Is this religious targeting? The answer is absolutely yes.”
The Bible says there’s a time to be “lamb-like, to be quiet, to be meek, to be mild,” Gibson added, but that moment has passed. Religious leaders now need to roar like lions and take a firm stance against “tyranny” and religious oppression.
Gibson said he welcomes opposition from community members and government leaders, saying “That smells like liberty to me.”
He also issued a call to action to people who believe that big-box retailers and general merchandising stores are essential, but don’t view churches in the same light.
“Those businesses operate strictly on the basis of cash in, cash out,” he said. “Do you know what the church has done for 2,000 years?”
“It’s prayed for the sick, it’s built hospitals, it’s built universities, it’s married people, it’s buried people,” he continued. “Go and see if the Walmart will bury your dead. Go and see if the Walmart will pray [for] and bless your children.”