Ohio Megachurch Keeps Holding Mass Gatherings, Even As Coronavirus Spreads

Do religious rights trump public health during the coronavirus outbreak?

While most of Ohio spent the last week lying low under Gov. Mike DeWine’s “stay at home” order to stem the coronavirus outbreak, the Solid Rock megachurch just north of Cincinnati took the opposite approach.

Inside its large sanctuary in Lebanon, hundreds of worshippers continued gathering for services. They sat close to each other and shared microphones. They sang and prayed in tight quarters. And despite the risks, Solid Rock doesn’t seem ready to call off in-person worship any time soon.

“We are respectful of every individual’s right to choose either to come to our service or to watch online,” the church said in a statement posted on its website. “We do believe that it is important for our doors to remain open for whomever to come to worship and pray during this time of great challenge in our country.”

The decision contradicts health experts’ recommendations for people to avoid social contact to slow the spread of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19. Churches around the world have been identified as sources of outbreaks. In response, many places of worship have canceled services or moved them online.

But some churches are continuing to hold in-person services, with the implicit blessing of governors hesitant to tell religious institutions what to do, even in an emergency. Perhaps fearful of challenging religious institutions’ First Amendment right to religious assembly, governors are allowing these institutions the option to put public health second.

Solid Rock has faced backlash for its decision to remain open. In comments beneath video clips of recent services that Solid Rock posted to its Facebook page, critics labeled the church “selfish” and “irresponsible.” Another urged Solid Rock to exercise “common sense and precaution” and consider the lives of medical workers and the elderly.

Ohio resident Kim Harmon, one of the online critics, wrote “loving your neighbor means not killing them.”

“No one is impressed with [Solid Rock’s] perceived holiness, because it isn’t actually holy. It’s reckless and goes against Romans 13:2,” which counsels respect for authorities, Harmon said in a message to HuffPost.

Solid Rock Church is known for its 51-foot tall Jesus statue in Monroe, Ohio.
Solid Rock Church is known for its 51-foot tall Jesus statue in Monroe, Ohio.
Al Behrman/AP

DeWine, a Republican, has urged churches to avoid in-person services. But Ohio’s 12-page coronavirus order, which requires all nonessential business activities to cease and bans public gatherings, makes no mention of religious institutions.

The governor has a “very strong respect for and belief in the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, and the provisions are meant to comply with the constitutional requirement not to interfere with free exercise of religion,” spokesperson Daniel Tierney said.

Not only are the continued in-person services fueling a morality debate, but the exemptions raise important questions about First Amendment protections during public health emergencies. Some governors say they cannot force churches to end in-person services, while others have done so.Legal experts say states don’t violate their constitutions with emergency limitations on religious bodies.

Leaders in Louisiana and Maryland opted not to exempt places of worship from stay-at-home orders. In Louisiana, police are investigating a Baton Rouge pentecostal church that continues to defy Gov. John Bel Edwards’ order.

That church, Life Tabernacle Church, has drawn 1,000 people to services in recent days. The pastor, Tony Spell, claimed the stay-at-home order was “politically motivated” religious “persecution,” and questioned why Planned Parenthood clinics and restaurants are allowed to remain open.

Solid Rock didn’t respond to requests for comment. The church cited the Constitution in explaining on its website why it refuses to cancel services.

“The First Amendment of our Constitution guarantees freedom concerning religion, expression, and assembly,” the church statement says. “It specifically forbids Congress from restricting an individual’s religious practices. Therefore, the government ban on large gatherings does not apply to religious worship.”

But given the extreme situation, the argument holds little merit. Churches can continue to operate without mass gatherings, much like restaurants can operate on a takeout-only basis. And even the First Amendment is not “an absolute constitutional right,” said John Inazu, a professor of law and religion at Washington University in St. Louis.

There simply aren’t blanket protections in the Constitution, and that’s why something like a “Church of Human Sacrifice” won’t exist, Inazu said. The question in the coronavirus crisis centers on the point at which a “compelling government interest” overcomes religious freedom or right to assembly.

We are likely at that point, Inazu said, though some qualifications exist. “The order must be applied generally to all large gatherings,” he said, and can’t permit nonessential businesses to remain open while requiring churches to close. The businesses that remain open must be critical government services, hospitals, grocery stores, and the like.

States may get it wrong for any combination of several reasons, Inazu added. Some politicians are sympathetic to religious entities and some fear political backlash from religious voters.

It’s also extremely difficult to quickly develop emergency orders, which can lead to decisions like that made by Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer. She effectively exempted churches from a shelter-in-place order, explaining to Fox News on Sunday that there’s a “separation of church and state,” and “that’s an area that we don’t have the ability to directly enforce and control.”

Inazu disagreed.

“Some governors are probably short-handing very vague notions of separation of church and state, as well as religious liberty, without understanding the law,” Inazu said. “They’re probably responding to public discourse rather than legal standards.”

In some states, public pressure may be enough to force religious institiutions to close. Following Whitmer’s Michigan exemption, several churches held in-person services on Sunday. However, media coverage and criticism may have influenced later decisions by some churches to suspend in-person services.

In Ohio, Harmon said she hopes public pressure may also persuade Solid Rock to do the same.

“For the benefit of the community, please encourage your parishioners to gather together in groups of two or more in their own homes and watch the service online,” Harmon said in an email. “God has said he’ll be there.”

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