A conservative Christian law firm is calling on churches across the country to resume in-person Sunday services on May 3 as long as they take social distancing precautions to stem the spread of the new coronavirus.
Liberty Counsel founder Mat Staver said that churches must reopen to meet the “burgeoning needs of the community.”
“Churches are now more essential than ever to bring comfort, hope, and help to the people they serve,” Staver said in a statement about the campaign he’s calling “ReOpen Church Sunday.”
“Each church is different and each one must assess when and how best to reopen,” he added.
The Florida-based Liberty Counsel is part of the conservative Christian legal movement, which seeks to advance and protect conservative religious values, primarily through legal advocacy. The firm is representing pastors in Florida, Virginia and Kentucky who claim that local or state stay-at-home orders have violated their religious freedom rights.
Most houses of worship in the U.S. have closed in response to the spread of COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus. But a minority are operating as usual or are suing for the ability to meet while observing social distancing guidelines. Many of these churches, and the conservative law firms defending them in courts, have framed the fight as a religious liberty issue, arguing that if venues such as grocery stores and laundromats can remain open while practicing social distancing, it’s unconstitutional for churches to be forced to shut their doors.
The Liberty Counsel has released guidelines for churches that choose to reopen. The law firm suggested that churches should advise high-risk individuals to stay home. They could also do temperature checks at their doors, have multiple services throughout the day and keep non-cohabitating congregants at least 6 feet apart before, during and after services.
“Churches can engage in a variety of options including having an in person service at a reduced attendance, sanitizing the church, also having simultaneous parking lot services and simultaneous online services,” Staver said in a YouTube video about the campaign.
Liberty Counsel said it chose May 3 because the date falls near the National Day of Prayer, an annual observance instituted by Congress. The national event usually draws crowds of participants. This year, its leaders are encouraging virtual prayer meetings and asking people to honor local laws regarding public gatherings.
“We want every pray-er to be healthy and safe and to make sure there are no outbreaks or re-outbreaks of Covid19 to be traced back to any of our gatherings,” task force President Kathy Branzell said in an April 20 blog post.
Liberty Counsel also said it chose May 3 because of President Donald Trump’s “Opening Up America Again” plan, a set of guidelines for governors issued in mid-April. Phase 1 of Trump’s three-part plan proposes that large venues, such as houses of worship, “can operate under strict physical distancing protocols.” The administration is pushing for the economy to reopen by May 1, but states have varying stances on when and how to lift stay-at-home orders.
Before states can move on to Phase 1, Trump’s plan suggests they should first meet certain “gating criteria,” such as showing a “downward trajectory of COVID-19-like syndromic cases reported within a 14-day period,” and having a “robust testing program in place for at-risk healthcare workers, including emerging antibody testing.”
HuffPost has reached out to The White House for comment on the Liberty Counsel’s campaign to reopen churches on May 3.
The timing allows Liberty Counsel to avoid appearing to conflict with Trump, according to Joshua Wilson, a scholar at the University of Denver who is co-writing a book on the conservative Christian legal movement.
“This is important given that white evangelicals are both the Liberty Counsel’s primary constituency/audience and the President’s most loyal supporters,” Wilson told HuffPost in an email.
Though social distancing regulations vary by state and county, much of what the law firm is advocating ― such as having drive-in church services ― is already permissible in some areas and may not actually be an act of civil disobedience, Wilson said. However, by presenting itself as a strong defender of religious liberty, the law firm is staking out a niche that distinguishes it from other Christian legal advocacy groups, he said.
Liberty Counsel has been one of the more aggressive Christian legal defense groups, championing religious freedom in cases where similar groups have been more cautious, according to Andrew Lewis, a scholar at the University of Cincinnati who studies conservative legal activism. The law firm previously represented Kim Davis, the Kentucky county clerk who was jailed in 2015 for refusing to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples after it became legal.
The Liberty Counsel is now playing into outsized fears among white evangelicals that they are facing undue discrimination in America, Lewis said.
Given the vital role churches play in Americans’ social lives, it’s understandable that some people are yearning to return to in-person church meetings, Lewis said. Communities that are less affected by COVID-19 or where churches are smaller and less capable of virtual gatherings are particularly likely to want to return to meeting in person, he said.
“As we move into May, I expect that we will see more of these conflicts. Churches have been quite compliant in the first weeks of the COVID pandemic, but as life opens up in states, there will be an increasing push for churches to reopen, especially in conservative circles,” Lewis said.
Meanwhile, the leaders of America’s major historically Black Protestant denominations called on congregants to continue to abide by shelter-in-place guidelines, even in states that are lifting such orders. In a statement released Friday, the leaders noted the pandemic’s outsized effect on Black communities and said governors who were opening their states up too soon showed a “reckless disregard” for the lives of Black residents.
The leaders said their faith compelled them to speak out.
“Our sacred duty is to support and advance the life and health of Black people, families and communities in our country,” the leaders wrote. “And so, we link arms in our shared determination to protect our communities from the ravages of this pandemic. For now, that means encouraging each and every one of you to stay home.”
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