The rush to reopen churches has become the latest front in the coronavirus culture wars.
President Donald Trump has declared places of worship “essential” during the pandemic and said he’d override governors if they didn’t allow in-person services. Analysts have countered he doesn’t have the constitutional authority to do that.
But long before Trump ordered churches reopened — and long after how this battle plays out politically — some ministers and congregations have and will likley continue to defy state mandates. Because for many of them, the reasons go beyond partisan politics.
Some see it as a religious freedom issue
For the most part, American mosques and temples have not wrestled with the question of whether to hold services or not.
But for many Christian churches, the issue goes straight to what they view as their constitutional right to free exercise of religion.
If restaurants and shopping malls are allowed to reopen under certain safety protocols, the argument goes, then churches should be too.
“You can’t discriminate against religious gatherings compared to secular gatherings,” said Mat Staver, chairman of the conservative legal group Liberty Counsel. “Churches can incorporate into their worship service the social distancing and the hygiene as good or, frankly in my experience, even better than some of the nonreligious venues.”
Staver said state orders that still prohibit churches from resuming in-person services go against their “First Amendment right to exist.”
“There is no pause button on the First Amendment,” he said.
Liberty Counsel led a national call for churches and believers to start meeting again on May 3. The organization released a set of safety measures that churches should consider implementing as they resume in-person worship. The recommendations allow for a substantial degree of flexibility around actions like mask-wearing and don’t address singing, which could accelerate transmission of the virus.
Staver said that restrictions on houses of worship were too broad and amounted to a “one-size-fits-all template.”
People in faith communities need churches more than ever during this moment, he said, and churches should be able to decide for themselves how best to serve their communities without government intervention.
For some, physical gatherings are a key part of the faith
In many Christian denominations, assembling physically for worship is critical to the faith.
Many houses of worship initially adapted to the pandemic by holding virtual or drive-through services. But for the faithful, nothing can replicate the act of physically coming together at the end of the week.
“For Christianity in general, assembling on Sunday is a most ancient tradition,” said Bruce Morrill, a Roman Catholic priest and a professor of theological studies at Vanderbilt Divinity School. “It’s at the very origins of Christianity, and it remains important for this day.”
Then there are the rituals, sacraments and traditions that bind parishioners to one another.
“The anxiousness of so many parishes to restart and regather has to do with the belief in the mystical presence of Christ in the assembled community, and especially in the bread and wine shared in the Eucharist, or the Holy Communion rite,” Morrill said about the urgency felt by Roman Catholics.
The Eucharist, the consecration of the bread and wine that Roman Catholics believe becomes the body and blood of Christ, is perhaps the most important part of Catholic worship. It strengthens bonds between parishioners, provides spiritual nourishment and connects believers to God.
Other denominations, including Episcopalians and Lutherans, celebrate variations of the sacrament, too. Many believers have gone months without receiving communion, and they can’t do so without assembling in person.
Churches also serve as a place where people gather for community, with the congregation becoming a second family.
At a time when people are experiencing social isolation, financial hardships, grief and loss, church is where they want to turn for solace and support.
For some, their churches are hurting financially
Another consequence of suspending in-person services is that in many cases, churches are running low on funds.
Part of that is because of the economic effects that the pandemic has had on church members, said Charles Zech, professor emeritus of church management at Villanova University. Without services, the offering plate is no longer being passed.
Catholic churches, he said, are especially hurting.
“The Catholic Church asks their members to contribute by dropping money in the basket every week,” Zech said. “They don’t ask them to tithe, typically don’t ask them to pledge, typically they just ask them to contribute through the collection basket. Of course that means that if (parishioners) are not there, then they’re not contributing.”
That’s critical, he added, because few churches have sources of revenue beyond contributions from parishioners.
More than 12,000 Catholic churches in the US applied for small business loans from the federal government, according to Pat Markey, executive director of the Diocesan Fiscal Management Conference (DFMC). Approximately 6,000 parishes were approved in the first round of the Paycheck Protection Program, while 3,000 received loans in the second round, DFMC estimated in early May.
Some churches have asked members to contribute electronically while in-person services are suspended. But Zech said the percentage of those who are making payments online is relatively low.
Some believe God will protect them
Some pastors who are pushing ahead with reopening are placing their faith in God.
The Rev. Brian Lowman, who leads South Hills Baptist Church in Raleigh, North Carolina, said in March that he met with the church’s safety committee and deacons to “seek God’s will for the church.”
In deciding to remain open for worship at the time, the independent Baptist church sought guidance from the Bible.
“The same God that told us not to stop coming together to worship Him during these times of increased illness and persecution is the same One who does not want us to be afraid,” Lowman wrote in a letter to his congregation,
At Life Tabernacle Church in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, Pastor Tony Spell, who made headlines for repeatedly holding large church services in defiance of the governor’s order, said in March that congregants were gathering for singing and dancing and slaying of the spirit, even the laying on of hands to heal the sick.
“The Bible tells us to lay hands on the sick and they shall recover and will continue to do that without the fear of the spread of any virus,” he said at the time.
Though Spell said he was not opposed to doctors, he said members of his congregation have been healed of diseases like cancer.
But some have decided they can’t reopen at all
For all the churches that have forged ahead with plans to reopen, there are others that have made different decisions.
The Episcopal Diocese of North Carolina and the Southern New England Conference of the United Church of Christ are among the institutions cautioning churches to wait longer before welcoming parishioners back in their pews.
Rates of Covid-19 infections, hospitalizations and deaths have not yet shown enough of a decline, both organizations said, and taking a more measured approach is in the best interests of faith communities.
The Rev. Cameron Barr, senior pastor of the United Church of Chapel Hill, North Carolina, said he and a group of about 20 local pastors have been meeting weekly with a physician to determine whether it is safe to resume in-person services.
At this time, the group has decided that it’s not responsible to resume.
The community hasn’t seen a sustained decrease in infections, widespread rapid testing isn’t yet available and the capability to conduct contact tracing isn’t up to par.
And even if they did resume in-person services, things would look drastically different. They wouldn’t be singing, exchanging the sign of peace or receiving communion.
“If you come to church and you can’t sing or partake in the sacrament or build community together, then we’re really serving a pretty thin soup,” Barr said.
The pandemic has been difficult for believers, Barr said, as it has been for everyone.
But while he and his congregation miss the practices, rituals and community that they share, they’re drawing on another part of their faith: that showing love for one another means doing whatever they can to keep each other safe.