Monday, March 23, 2020

Does Stay At Home" Mean "Stay Away from Church"?

The Coronavirus matter is causing considerable consternation for many. I have had a number of friends share with me, and with dismay, that their churches announced that they would not gather for services in the weeks to come. They feel compelled to obey the orders of the local and state authorities in California to prevent large gatherings.

However, don't these orders violate our First Amendment rights, including freedom of religion and peaceable assembly?

Furthermore, does the "Stay at home" orders issued by California Governor Gavin Newsom and other governors in the United States mean that people of faith cannot meet with their fellow parishoners?

Does this mean that Christians must forego attending church for the time being?

Brad Dacus of the Pacific Justice Institute shared the following press release/legal information with faithful adherents and church leaders about their rights and opportunities during the Coronavirus "Stay At Home" orders:

What Options Do Churches Have Amid Bans of Mass Gatherings? 
March 13, 2020

Dear Friends,

With so much anxiety and uncertainty gripping our nation, it’s more important that the people of God act with faith and not from fear. We also want to be well-informed and make the best decisions possible for ourselves, our families, and our churches.

Many pastors are asking us how the increasing prohibitions on mass gatherings may affect their churches. The following is some brief guidance in this area. Note that this is a rapidly developing situation.     

First, churches should ascertain whether they are under a ban on mass gatherings or directive on social distancing. As of March 12, 2020, most public events in California have been ordered canceled. There are no exemptions for church services or events. A few other jurisdictions are enacting similar restrictions, with more undoubtedly to follow.

In California, on March 11 Gov. Newsom updated the State’s policy and guidance stating that gatherings of 250 or more should be canceled or postponed, gatherings of under 250 should proceed only with “social distancing” of 6 feet between persons, and gatherings of high-risk individuals should be limited to no more than 10. The next day on March 12 Gov. Newsom issued an Executive Order directing, among other things, that all residents of the State are to heed such guidance.

Churches will have a variety of responses to such directives. Beyond the legal issues presented, the guidance and overarching health crisis are spiritual challenges to be wrestled with by pastors and, where applicable, the eldership or other ecclesiastical authority.

Many churches will comply. In many ways, churches today are better positioned than many other entities to deal with this crisis. Most churches now broadcast their sermons and/or services online, and tithing can also usually be done online. Churches may possibly spread out their services throughout the week and have more services on the weekend in order to reduce the total number of congregants at one time. Home-based small groups within churches may be well positioned to take on a greater role in the absence of larger gatherings. After all, the church started out in homes 2,000 years ago!

At the same time, some church leaders may feel they cannot in good conscience cancel a worship service. If so, such churches should be aware that state and local governments have considerable powers—known as police powers—to issue decrees like this. Depending on the specific facts and circumstances, PJI might be willing to challenge the authority of a government to order the cancellation of a worship service, but this is an unprecedented situation and the legal outcome of such a conflict would be highly uncertain. Churches would have to be willing to risk fines and other forms of potential liability if they took this approach.

Churches seeking to carry on normal activities, whether they are in a jurisdiction seeking to halt mass gatherings or not, would be well advised to contact their insurance carriers to understand their potential liabilities and mitigation strategies. While PJI is well-versed in First Amendment and related defenses of religious institutions, we cannot advise churches as to all other areas of risk, such as from people contracting a disease at a church event conducted in defiance of a governmental directive.

Aside from government bans, church leaders do have the authority to take steps such as directing elderly or high-risk congregants to avoid church gatherings. Many churches are also making hand sanitizer available, discouraging handshakes, and cleaning more often than usual. Churches may also wish to require masking or make them available. While the benefits of mask-wearing have been debated by experts, many doctors continue to advocate mask-wearing. 

PJI staff are taking appropriate precautions, but we are not giving in to fear. We remain here to serve the Body of Christ through every crisis. Note that, due to all of the disruptions this crisis is creating in many different areas of our lives, our response times to non-urgent requests may be somewhat delayed as we prioritize the most urgent needs of churches, ministries, and clients.   

Let’s ask God to turn around this crisis to bring us together as a nation, to remind us what is truly important and eternal, and to give churches and the people of God new ways to minister to our neighbors.

Running the Race,

Brad Dacus
Founder and President of Pacific Justice Institute
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This press release was published two weeks ago. Today, those orders have heightened considerably. Even I did not attend church this past weekend because my pastor and his congregational staff decided to deliver the sermons via social media instead of in person.

I think that this development is quite unfortunate. Instead of living in fear, our leaders, both in the pulpit as well as in the statehouse, should walk by faith, not by sight or sense.

The Governor of Michigan, herself a liberal Democrat, included an exception to her "Stay At Home" order this week.

Here's the report from Christian Post:

Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer stated that worship services are exempted from her recent executive order prohibiting gatherings of 50 or more people due to coronavirus concerns. 

In an interview with “Fox News Sunday” anchor John Roberts, Whitmer explained that while she greatly discourages such gatherings in light of the pandemic, she believed the government did not have the right to order churches to close. 

 “Well, you know, the separation of church and state and the Republican legislature asked me to clarify that,” explained Whitmer, a Democrat.

“That's an area that we don't have the ability to directly enforce and control. We are encouraging people, though, do not congregate.” The governor warned those considering attending church at this time that “you yourself can be carrying it and you might not even know it.”

Californians should contact Governor Newsom and demand that he relax his "Stay at Home" order. Yes, he can advise churches and charities to monitor and discourage large gathers, but to all-out ban larger assemblies of Christians and other religious congregations is a step too far.

Make it clear to the staffers that other Democratic governors (although partisan affiliation should not matter) have relaxed their "Stay at Home" orders.

Mailing address:
Governor Gavin Newsom
1303 10th Street, Suite 1173
Sacramento, CA 95814

Phone: (916) 445-2841
Fax: (916) 558-3160

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