As an increasing number of churches reopen nationwide, religious leaders who defied governors’ orders by resuming in-person services early are considering what to do if states close down again in the fall.
Many churches shut down voluntarily in March, and even the majority of those who did not closed after governments either required it or strongly encouraged them to do so. But now that shutdowns have dragged on, provoking lawsuits as well as three interventions from the Justice Department, some churches have become more wary of their governments.
Josh Akin, pastor of GraceBuilt Church in Waynesboro, Virginia, reopened one week before Gov. Ralph Northam’s 10-person limit on services expired in mid-May. Akin said that the move was meant as a “communication” to his community that “the government cannot speak to how, when, or where we pray.”
“I intend to practice our faith independent of government regulation,” he said. “We will continue throughout this year to modify and increase our social distancing policies, to do everything that all of our other commercial neighbors are doing — and more — to keep our congregation safe.”
To ensure maximum safety, Akin said, he’s gone even further than Northam’s guidelines, which currently require congregations gather at no more than 50% capacity. GraceBuilt has added several services to its Sunday schedule so that no more than 75 people will likely gather in the church, which can seat more than 300.
Akin said he’s ready to add even more services if necessary to space people out. But he drew the line at closing down again.
“The principle still stands that it’s the people’s responsibility to keep themselves safe,” he said. “And if people want to worship or pray in our space, I intend to let them.”
Joe Wyrostek, pastor of Metro Praise International in Chicago, Illinois, said he’d be willing to shut down again — if the order was supported by reason. Wyrostek, who opened his church in early May, added that he had been willing to shut down in the first place because, at the time, the science seemed to support the decision as the smartest for his community.
“Faith and facts put us into quarantine, led us out, and would put us back in if that was needed,” he said.
Wyrostek is among a series of Illinois church leaders staging a “passive resistance” to Gov. J.B. Pritzker, who has not yet allowed churches to congregate except in groups less than 10 people. The Chicago Police Department on Wednesday began fining churches that did not comply with the order.
Metro Praise, along with the Philadelphia Romanian Church of God, which limited its attendance to 75 people for its latest Sunday service, received $500 fines for breaking the order.
In California, where on May 31, more than 3,000 churches plan to defy Gov. Gavin Newsom’s complete ban on in-person services, religious leaders are hoping that they won’t be forced into another standoff with Newsom in the fall.
Danny Carroll, pastor of Water of Life Community Church and one of the leaders of the coalition, said that he supported Newsom in his attempts to keep the state safe. But in the process, he said, the governor “hasn’t been responsive to our needs at all.”
Referring to a Monday letter from the Justice Department supporting the rights of Californian churches to worship in-person, Carroll said it’s no wonder that many religious leaders feel the need to take matters into their own hands.
“There’s a lot of us saying, ‘Okay, we just need to move ahead,’” he said. “I don’t think any of us are rebels or activists. We’re just pastors trying to get our churches to go to work. We love our people.”
If the virus came roaring back, Carroll said he would shut down again. But if that occurs, he hopes Newsom will not issue and enforce orders in what he believes was a counterproductive manner.
“Hopefully, he’s learning some lessons this time,” he said. “I always try to believe the best in people, which, I know, sounds a bit naive. But hopefully, it’s not.”
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