By Rose Hoban
Another weekend with empty pews. Another weekend where the people of God will be separated, tuning into worship services on YouTube or Facebook or Zoom.
The coronavirus pandemic has had a profound effect on churches and temples across the U.S., as religious leaders have had to move online to comply with gubernatorial orders to not gather in large groups in order to reduce the spread of the highly contagious novel virus.
A recent judge’s order could change that. In a decision Monday, a U.S. District judge issued a preliminary injunction on Gov. Roy Cooper’s restriction on church gatherings.
That’s what prompted a group of pastors primarily from African American churches to gather Thursday in Durham to speak to the media about their concerns.
Rev. Jerome J. Washington from Mt. Vernon Baptist Church in Durham’s Hayti neighborhood said that many of the congregations his colleagues were serving had members who would be disproportionately affected by COVID-19. None of Washington’s congregation have yet been affected, but one of the pastors present had already lost two people to the disease.
“And we feel, I feel that as a pastor, as a shepherd of sheep, it would be a miscarriage of my character to open up the church and invite all those people to come back in knowing that they are vulnerable to this virus,” he said.
“We are here because we love our people and we love each other,” he said. “We’re here to protect the most vulnerable among us.”
Their action came days after a statement Monday by the North Carolina Council of Churches, which represents 18 major Christian denominations and more than 6,000 churches, which stated “unequivocally that we do not believe now is the time for congregations to return to their sanctuaries.”
Mixing politics and religion
The Durham pastors’ response came in contrast and response to a lawsuit filed by Dr. Ronnie Baity, pastor of Berean Baptist Church in Winston-Salem.
“We have a Biblical mandate to assemble, and a First Amendment right to assemble without government intervention,” Baity told NC Health News. “Those are the two most powerful reasons in the universe to come together. They both speak either directly or indirectly to God’s command over our lives.”
In his arguments, Baity notes he emphasizes this physical gathering aspect at his church.
“Church attendance is of such ecclesiastical importance… that under the Berean’s bylaws, the failure of a member to attend at least one regular worship service in two months subjects that member’s membership to automatic termination by Berean,” the injunction, written by U.S. District Court Judge James Dever, notes.
Other denominations differ in their interpretation of scripture.
“We’ve said all along that the best way to love our neighbors right now is to keep our distance from them,” said Jennifer Copeland, head of the North Carolina Council of Churches. She said no one’s been told to stop worshipping, they’ve only been told they can’t do it in person.
Temporary Injunction ordered by Judge James Dever III, Eastern District Court, North Carolina (PDF)
The petition filed by Dr. Ronnie Baity.
“Congregations all over the state, all over this country have found amazing and creative ways to worship together without being in the same room,” she said, arguing that no one’s right to religious freedom has been impinged. “Nobody’s gone in there, shut down anybody’s website site and said, ‘Oh, no, you can have virtual worship.’
“Nobody has told us that we can’t practice our religious beliefs. Our homes are not being broken into, and we’re not being thrown in jail for saying the Lord’s Prayer.”
She said she believed Baity’s lawsuit had a political motivation. Washington, the Durham pastor, also made it clear he believed there was a political bent to the suit.
“One does not show up, embracing the cross with a ‘Make America Great Again’ hat on,” he said.
Baity denies having a political agenda.
“The government is not to prohibit our right of religious freedom,” he said.
Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, churches have been hotspots for some dramatic outbreaks.
Last week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a case study of a church in Arkansas that was the hub for transmitting COVID-19 to more than 90 people.
A rural church had several in-person meetings in March, including a children’s service, a Bible study and a worship service. The pastor, 57, and his wife, 56, developed symptoms several days later. According to the CDC, the couple was likely infected at one of several earlier events and the pastor then likely exposed others during the Bible study.
In all, 35 of 92 people who attended these events acquired COVID-19, and three people died. Church members who became infected had contact with an additional 26 people who eventually tested positive, and of those, one person died.
In response to the ruling by federal judge James Dever from the Eastern District Court, Cooper’s recent guidance has suggested that any choir members remain six feet apart.
A different case study released this month by the CDC detailed how a choir practice in Washington state became a “super-spreader event” where 61 people were exposed, 53 developed symptoms and two subsequently died.
“The act of singing, itself, might have contributed to transmission through emission of aerosols, which is affected by loudness of vocalization,” the study’s authors noted.
More recently, a church in Northern California became the source of an outbreak after a pastor held Mother’s Day services in defiance of that state’s recommendations. About 180 people were exposed.
“At this time, organizations that hold in-person services or gatherings are putting the health and safety of their congregations, the general public and our local ability to open up at great risk,” stated Danette York, director of Butte County Public Health, where the outbreak occurred.
“The organization chose to open its doors, which resulted in exposing the entire congregation to COVID-19,” York wrote. “This decision comes at a cost of many hours and a financial burden to respond effectively to slow or stop the spread of COVID-19.”
“We have never stopped worshiping. As a matter of fact, we do it more,” Washington argued.
He described the creative ways pastors were tending to their flocks, including webcasts, telephone counseling, Face timing, writing new devotions, music online and trading ideas of how to reach their flocks.
“We are worshiping by way of telephone conference-dot-com, you name it. If you have some ideas of how we might even further, let us know,” Washington said to laughter from the group. “The only thing that the COVID-19 has done is made us more creative.
“The building is closed. But we have never stopped having church and we did not need the governor to tell us that,” Washington said.
For Baity’s part, he said he’s going to welcome people back to his church this weekend. He’ll be providing masks, checking people’s temperatures, doing extensive cleaning and sitting family groups further apart than usual.
“We’re not going to go back in a haphazard way,” he argued. “They don’t have as much sanitizing going on in the public domain as we have going on in our church house.”
COMPLAINT FOR DECLARATORY JUDGMENT AND INJUNCTIVE RELIEF (PDF)
Temporary Injunction ordered by Judge James Dever III, Eastern District Court, North Carolina