President Donald Trump’s call on Friday to reopen houses of worship sent a green light to some pastors to resume in-person services on Sunday, even in the face of contrary bans from governors.
Cindy Hope, pastor of the Promise Church in Escondido, California, called Trump’s proclamation “exciting” and compared it to winning the lottery. Earlier that day, despite having no authority to do so, Trump ordered governors to immediately allow houses of worship to resume in-person religious services, escalating an ongoing dispute across the nation.
“When the president came out and said churches are essential, I’m like wait, did everybody just hear that? Was I alone in hearing that?” she told Fox 5 San Diego. “We get to have church. I know it’s a modified version but, hey, we get to come and worship God and be together and that’s what’s so important right now.”
To be clear, governors have great latitude during times of emergency, and sovereign authority under the constitution even in normal times. But Hope said that she intends to hold in-person services on Sunday, thanks to the support from the president.
A Maine pastor who unsuccessfully sued the state’s governor to hold in-person services said one of his services on Sunday would be held inside. Calvary Chapel pastor Ken Graves said he’d just finished building an enclosed stage on a hay wagon—to hold improvised outdoor and drive-in services—when his phone started buzzing with Trump’s announcement.
“Sure enough, there’s the news of the position our president is taking in support of religious freedom,” he said in a sermon posted to his Facebook in which he called the centralized lockdown powers being utilized by “leftist” governors as “the spirit of anti-Christ.”
“What if there’s a different spirit at work in the White House?” he asked. He added, however, that he would still fight for a court ruling in his favor.
Several California churches joined together on May 8 to file a 128-page civil rights lawsuit seeking an injunction and restraining order allowing in-person services in the state. A San Diego federal judge turned down that request.
And on Friday, in a 2-1 decision, an appeals court rejected the request once more, writing in an unsigned opinion that the churches’ First Amendment rights were not violated because the ban was not religiously motivated.
“We’re dealing here with a highly contagious and often fatal disease for which there presently is no known cure,” the judges wrote, adding, from a 1949 Supreme Court ruling: “If a ‘court does not temper its doctrinaire logic with a little practical wisdom, it will convert the constitutional Bill of Rights into a suicide pact.’”
One plaintiff in that suit, South Bay United Pentecostal Church’s Pastor Arthur E. Hodges III, told The Daily Beast on Saturday that he found the mention of a “suicide pact” by the judges “insensitive at best.”
“It’s highly offensive to every church, mosque, synagogue, temple, clergy, priest, every constituent, every faith-believing person in America, everyone for whom faith plays an important part of their life,” said Hodges. “It is wildly speculative, at best, that returning to an in-person church worship gathering would equate to a ‘suicide pact.’ Are you kidding me? It boggles my mind. It’s moronic. I thought they were supposed to deal with facts and science. Here’s a fact: Since church doors have been closed, suicide rates are skyrocketing in America.”
(Doctors, in fact, won’t know for months if suicide rates have spiked in 2020 due to the pandemic—and even then, it would be difficult to unpack whether those deaths were related to church closures, or other factors like grief, isolation, and unemployment.)
But Hodges has not been dissuaded, and he and his fellow plaintiffs filed an emergency application with the U.S. Supreme Court on Saturday, in which they asked the high court to weigh in on the matter.
In any case, Hodges said that his daughter was a nurse working on COVID-19 cases and he’d lost two friends to the virus, which is why he and his fellow plaintiffs planned to respect the public health protocols being used by businesses, like those put forward by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. CDC protocols advise faith leaders to “take steps to limit the size of gatherings in accordance with the guidance and directives of state and local authorities.”
“We’re going to practice every safe guideline anyone else is practicing—whether it’s Walmart or a restaurant,” Hodges said. “We’re not asking for any exceptions.”
Hodges’ goal is to be able to open the doors to worshipers by the end of the month. But first, he wants to win the legal battle, he said.
“When Trump made his announcement, I said, ‘Well, thank God the commander-in-chief supports us,’” Hodges recalled. “But the president, as powerful as he is, does not have the power a governor does. We need a legal ruling in our favor.”
Fortunately for Hodges, earlier this week, five lawyers with the Justice Department said in a letter to Newsom that his order discriminated against religious institutions. More than 1,200 pastors signed a declaration protesting the restrictions. Meanwhile, the president said Friday that he was prepared to “override” any governors not following his directive. “The governors need to do the right thing and allow these very important essential places of faith to open right now, this weekend,” Trump said.
On Friday, Newsom said in a news briefing that he anticipated releasing new guidelines on Monday for churches to reopen “in a safe and responsible manner.” To his credit, multiple nationwide polls have shown the majority of Americans support the restrictions on in-person worship. So it’s not surprising that most churches have abided by the governor’s orders.
But churches itching to reopen in other states are having more luck. In North Carolina, a federal judge last week sided with churches in their dispute against Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper’s restriction on religious gatherings over 10 people. Cooper said he would not appeal the ruling.
Some are testing how willing their state leaders will be to fight back, even without a court ruling. A group of Catholic and Lutheran churches in Minnesota said they planned to resume in-person services in the coming days, in defiance of Gov. Tim Walz’s orders.
“We have concluded that many of our parishes are ready to safely resume Mass, albeit in a limited way, next week,” Archbishop Bernard Anthony Hebda said. The presidents of Minnesota’s two districts of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod said they were allowing churches to reopen on Tuesday and to hold in-person services on May 31.
Meanwhile, Pastor Alex McCormick’s Impact Church in Burlington, New Jersey, told NJ.com that his church had an elaborate social distancing strategy for congregants and that, along with 67 other pastors in his state, he planned to sue Gov. Phil Murphy unless houses of worship were able to reopen without restrictions by Wednesday.
“We take the safety of our parishioners very seriously,” said McCormick. “Why would you say people can go to Lowes, Home Depot and the liquor store, but not church?”
And in some cases, churches that opted to open have even faced violence.
Federal authorities were investigating the burning of a church in northern Mississippi on Wednesday as arson after graffiti at the scene appeared to criticize the church’s violation of a statewide stay-at-home order. The church had filed a lawsuit against the city last month. Police found the message, “Bet you stay home now you hypokrits [sic],” near the church’s doors, provoking Gov. Tate Reeves to tweet that he was “heartbroken and furious.”
In the lawsuit, Judge Michael P. Mills had said the church was “excessively reckless and cavalier” and showed “insufficient respect for the enormity of the health crisis which the COVID-19 pandemic presents.”
Still, other faith leaders said they were “absolutely not” moved by Trump’s proclamation this week.
“As a priest in a connected, ordered church my bishop gives me these directions, not the civil president, and the First Amendment protects that,” said Joseph Peters-Mathews, the Vicar at St. Hilda St. Patrick Episcopal Church in Edmonds, Washington. Peters-Mathews said the best-case scenario for in-person services to resume at his church was by June 21, but the transition will likely be postponed until at least July 7.
“Throughout this entire pandemic, the president has demonstrated that he is not concerned with the science of this virus and its transmission, but we are,” said Peters-Mathews. “We are more concerned with loving our neighbor than being in a building.”
“Person-to-person contact is very, very important,” said Peters-Mathews. “But we need to be alive so that our first gatherings aren't funerals.”
That view was shared by Josephine Robertson, the Vicar of All Saints Episcopal Church in Bellevue, Washington.
“My calling is to make wise decisions for my community based on our values, which this president does not share,” Robertson told The Daily Beast on Saturday. “In-person contact is incredibly important to Episcopalians and all Christians. We follow a teacher—Jesus—who washed the feet of his disciples as an example of what loving our neighbors looks like.”
“Protecting the marginalized and at-risk is more essential” than face-to-face services, she added. “I prepared my community to worship online through at least the end of the summer, possibly the end of the year.”
“Data tells us the U.S. is still in the midst of an uncontrolled outbreak,” she added. “My priority is the safety of my vulnerable population.”
“We can be the body of Christ without a building, without in-person worship,” said Robertson. “What we cannot do is be Christian without following Jesus’ command to love God and our neighbor.”
“We can safely help our neighbors without endangering them,” said Robertson. “And that too is worship.”