Several California pastors have pledged to reopen their churches on May 31 “or sooner,” regardless of whether their plan lines up with a schedule put forth by Gov. Gavin Newsom.
The pastors released a letter Thursday arguing that churches are “essential” during the pandemic and that people of faith have a right to worship in person.
Dan Carroll, the senior pastor of Fontana’s 20,000-member Water of Life Community Church, said he thinks Californians of faith feel like they’ve been “kicked to the curb” and “marginalized.”
“We are feeling like we aren’t counting as critical at any level,” Carroll said earlier this month at a press conference. “We’re doing all the essential things to care for people behind the scenes but when it comes to worshipping together, we’re restricted and not allowed to do that.”
“We’re not here to be activists, we’re not here to be rebels; we’re here to be helpers,” Carroll added as he announced the pastors’ initiative to open their churches by the end of May.
A federal judge ruled on May 5 that Newsom had the right to ban church assemblies during the coronavirus outbreak, in response to a lawsuit filed by an evangelical church in Lodi.
Newsom said Thursday that churches might be able to reopen earlier than initially expected. But officials are still concerned about the possibility of large groups of people gathering together in closed spaces.
“I take very seriously those concerns about people of faith and I’m very sensitive to those who want to get back to church,” he said, according to the Orange County Register. “But the health of those communities is foundational.”
California moved into the second phase of Newsom’s four-part reopening plan on Friday, which meant business including bookstores, florists and clothing stores could reopen. Churches are part of Phase 3 of Newsom’s plan, as are salons, gyms and movie theaters.
Carroll said the pastors in his group feel they should have been included in Phase 2 of the recovery plan.
In their open letter to Newsom and California’s public health officer, the pastors ― who are mostly evangelical Christians and claim to represent 1,500 churches in the state ― say the mandated shutdown of houses of worship has been detrimental and argue churches should be considered “essential.”
Calvary Chapel Chino Hills plans to hold outdoor public prayer meetings on its megachurch property on the Sundays leading up to May 31, while implementing measures such as requiring face masks, distancing between family groups, and setting up hand-sanitizing stations.
In a video message urging other California clergy to join the movement, Pastor Jack Hibbs expressed frustration that churches haven’t received a firm date from state authorities about when they will be allowed to reopen.
“The church, like a can, is getting kicked down the road,” said Hibbs, who signed the open letter to Newsom.
Hibbs said the date May 31 came to him while he was praying, adding that other pastors he has spoken to have had similar experiences. May 31 is the Day of Pentecost, which commemorates a Bible story about Jesus’ followers gathering together after his death and being given the gift of the Holy Spirit. Some consider this to be the moment when the church was formed.
“Maybe God is saying that he’s going to restart the church in his house on Pentecost Sunday as we gather together in one heart and in one mind,” Hibbs said.
The pastors are being represented by two conservative Christian legal groups, Advocates for Faith & Freedom and The National Center for Law and Policy. Daniel Bennett, a scholar of religion and the law at John Brown University, said these two nonprofits are smaller players in the conservative Christian legal movement, which seeks to advance and protect conservative religious values.
During the pandemic, many conservative Christian legal groups have pushed for houses of worship to be deemed “essential” and be allowed to function with minimal restrictions.
Liberty Counsel, a Florida-based conservative Christian law firm, is backing a call for churches across the country to resume in-person worship. Other conservative religious legal groups have signed up to represent churches that want to reopen.
“By encouraging churches to open, this effort is attempting to rally Christians in what would amount to civil disobedience,” Bennett told HuffPost. “Given the narrative of Christian persecution among some in this community, disobedience of this sort could be framed as evidence of a strong and confident faith.”
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