Leading the charge to retake their freedom to worship, many Lutheran and Catholic churches throughout Minnesota vowed Wednesday to reopen on May 26 with or without the go by the state government – just days before President Donald Trump designated churches as being “essential” during the coronavirus pandemic.
Since the onset of stay-at-home orders, most churches statewide suspended in-person services and masses voluntarily and observed Center for Disease Control (CDC) guidelines; however, Lutheran leaders and Catholic bishops grew tired of taking a backseat to retailers and other services tagged as “essential” and told the governor so in letters.
“Enough is enough for the Catholic bishops and the Lutheran leaders of Minnesota, as they've seen Gov. Tim Walz recently allow retailers to fill their establishments up to 50% capacity, while at the same time capping church worship services at 10 people,” CBN News reported.
Faith as essential as food & services
As churches throughout the nation continued to be fined and threatened for holding drive-in church services – remaining in their cars in church parking lots – and before Trump labeled churches Friday as “essential” and called governors to let them reopen this weekend, Rev. Dr. Lucas Woodford of the Lutherans’ Missouri Synod asserted churches’ right to open … given by the United States Constitution.
"We are extremely grateful for the constitutional guarantee of the free exercise of religion in this wonderful country," Woodford proclaimed, according to CBN News. "We believe that forbidding 11 people from gathering together in a church – regardless of its size – while at the same time allowing malls and other non-critical businesses to open for people to congregate fails to uphold that guarantee."
Trump agreed on Friday – even urging state leaders to drop restrictions on church a day earlier than slated by Woodford.
“Governors need to do the right thing and allow these very important essential places of faith to open right now – for this weekend,” the president firmly suggested at a Friday White House press conference, according to The Associated Press, warning that he could override governors who defy his recommemdation.
Government has no right to shut down church
Becket Fund for Religious Liberty’s Eric Rassbach – whose firm represents the Lutheran and Catholic leaders – affirmed churches’ freedom to worship and exercise their religion.
"There is no pandemic exception to the First Amendment, as a number of courts have said," Rassbach asserted in CBN’s report. "The churches are asking for equal treatment – not special treatment."
Last week, church leaders and the legal firm put pressure on Minnesota’s governor for discriminating against churches through his executive order.
“The Minnesota Catholic Conference and The Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod in Minnesota sent Gov. Tim Walz letters [Wednesday] announcing that they would be resuming worship services on May 26 – despite Walz’s current COVID-19 executive order, which allows retailers to operate at 50% capacity, but caps church worship services at 10 people,” the Becket Fund announced in its Thursday press release. “Walz’s latest re-opening order allows the Mall of America to open its doors to those seeking retail therapy, but disallows churches from providing spiritual healing to their congregations. At the same time, the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty sent Walz and Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison a legal letter explaining why continuing to keep churches closed violates the First Amendment.”
Trump alerted America on Thursday – a day before designating churches as essential – that he was quickly going to take action on behalf of churches and that he was opposed to congregations not being allowed to meet in-person to the same capacity of many businesses that were considered more “essential” to Americans’ well-being.
"I want churches open – churches are not being treated with respect," the president impressed before visiting the Ford plant in Ypsilanti, Michigan – which is now producing ventilators in response to COVID-19 – as quoted in a Thursday tweet. "We are going to take a strong position on that soon."
Respecting authority, but honoring God first
Appealing to biblical teachings, Woodford demonstrated how his plea and plan for reopening in a larger capacity – as presented to state officials – was aligned with Paul’s response to overreaching Roman authority in the New Testament.
"It's not in our nature to push against the government, who holy Scripture asks us to willingly obey," the reverend explained. "Yet at the same time, just as the Apostle Paul exercised his legal right to appeal to Caesar while proclaiming the good news of Christ the crucified, so we have come to a point that we are conscience-bound to exercise our legal right of appeal regarding the extreme and prejudicial nature of the inequitable restrictions being put upon communities of faith."
The Lutheran and Catholic leaders emphasized that they would still be taking major precautions to observe social distancing and keep congregants safe by limiting church attendance to 33% of capacity inside their sanctuaries.
"If you think about pews in a church, two pews will be roped off, one pew open," Rassbach illustrated.
More precautions deviating from normal worship services and masses will also be strictly adhered to upon reopening to one-third capacity.
“Family groups will be spaced off from other family groups or individuals,” CBN noted. “Spaces will be frequently sanitized, doors will be open, collection plates will not be passed and communion will not be taken from a single vessel.”
At the same time, the legal expert stressed that the law of the land established centuries ago does not place churches congregating as second-rate to other places where people gather to meet, dine, purchase, recreate or obtain services.
“Under the First Amendment, religious worship cannot be at the back of the line – it has to be treated at least equally with other similar practices," Rassbach insisted to Minnesota government officials.
Even though being open to dialogue with state officials, Woodford could not commit to endless strings of executive orders limiting his church services to the size of small Bible studies.
"Because we cannot abide in indefinite suspension of in-person worship, we have chosen to move forward in returning to worship,” the Lutheran leader impressed last week. “We do so humbly and respectfully."
Before Trump boldly stood behind churches as essential, Rassbach hoped Minnesota worship gatherings would not experience Gestapo-style crackdowns from local officials and law enforcement.
"I certainly hope that no one will be sending police into churches to arrest the worshippers,” Rassbach expressed Thursday. “That's obviously something that would be reminiscent of some of the worst parts of world history – directly shutting down worship services."