The officiant at a rural Maine wedding that turned into a deadly COVID-19 “superspreader” event is an evangelical Christian pastor who has railed against his state’s coronavirus regulations and whose own church experienced an outbreak, according to local media reports.
As the now-infamous wedding reception’s impact spread through Maine, Pastor Todd Bell, of Calvary Baptist Church in Sanford, cast doubt on the effectiveness of masks, allowed congregational singing, and disseminated misinformation about the severity of COVID-19.
The church has retained a Christian legal defense nonprofit, National Center for Life and Liberty (NCLL), to help defend its “right to meet” during the pandemic.
“The authority of a local Christian church, a Jewish synagogue, or a Muslim mosque to gather for their respective religious services is a time-honored part of our nation’s history since its inception,” the nonprofit wrote in a statement obtained by HuffPost. “These religious activities are also fully protected under the First Amendment to our United States Constitution.”
On Aug. 6, Bell, who is also a pilot, tweeted that he was flying to marry a couple in Northern Maine. He presided over the wedding ceremony at the Tri Town Baptist Church in East Millinocket on Aug. 7. Afterward, about 65 people gathered for a reception at Big Moose Inn, exceeding the state’s 50-person limit for indoor gatherings. Guests at the wedding did not wear masks or stay socially distanced, according to the Bangor Daily News.
Over 270 coronavirus infections and eight deaths have now been traced back to that wedding, The Associated Press reported. Several people who had no association with the wedding party, and who live more than 100 miles away, fell ill.
Bell and six families from Calvary Baptist Church attended the wedding. Ten cases of COVID-19 have since emerged at Bell’s church, the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention confirmed to the AP last week.
The Maine CDC is still investigating whether the outbreak at Calvary Baptist Church is connected to the wedding outbreak and did not respond to HuffPost’s requests for comment.
There’s no indication that a member of Calvary Baptist Church brought the virus to the wedding reception. The church thinks that some of its members contracted COVID-19 from an inn employee, according to the NCLL’s statement. (The inn has confirmed that at least two of Big Moose Inn’s employees have tested positive since the reception.)
The church is still holding services and taking precautions to reduce the spread of COVID-19, “including extra sanitation and social distancing, as is reasonable,” the statement read.
The NCLL declined to respond to HuffPost’s inquiries about whether Calvary Baptist Church is also adopting other safety precautions, such as limiting attendance, meeting outdoors, discontinuing communal indoor singing and requiring congregants to wear masks.
On Sept. 11, WGME reported that the church is actually encouraging congregants not to wear masks.
This past Sunday, the congregation was joined by Jay Allen, a long shot Republican congressional candidate who has opposed mask-wearing policies. In a Facebook post, Allen called Bell a “freedom fighter” who is being persecuted and “villainized.”
“Pastor Todd Bell is being condemned for daring to live his life to the fullest and encouraging others to do the same,” Allen wrote.
On Aug. 30, one day after the Maine CDC confirmed coronavirus cases among its congregants, Calvary Baptist Church posted a video of an in-person service to its YouTube page. In the now-deleted video, a choir performed indoors without masks, CBS affiliate WGME reported. Maine’s public health guidelines “strongly” discourage choirs from performing during the pandemic. Indoor choir performances have been linked to COVID-19 outbreaks around the world.
During the service posted to YouTube, Bell told his congregation that he believes “God, not government,” would control the pandemic, according to WGME. The pastor reportedly downplayed the severity of the coronavirus and cautioned against getting inoculated once a vaccine for COVID-19 is developed. Instead of relying on vaccines, Bell said he is trusting in God, “the one that has the power to remove pestilences,” The Boston Globe reported.
Bell reportedly told church members that they could wear masks if they wanted to, but that he also wanted people “to have the liberty to have done your own research” and that “masks are kind of like trying to keep a mosquito out of a chain-link fence,” according to the Globe.
“I’ll tell you what the world wants all the churches to do,” Bell said in his sermon. “They want us to shut down, go home and let people get used to that just long enough until we can finally stop the advancing of the Gospel.”
Both Tri Town Baptist Church, where the wedding ceremony was held, and Bell’s Calvary Baptist Church appear to be independent fundamentalist Baptist churches. IFB churches can be loosely connected by pastors’ networks, but for the most part, they don’t have the hierarchical denominational structures that unite other American religious groups ― which means pastors have complete autonomy to dictate how closely their churches abide by state and local coronavirus restrictions.
While practices vary from church to church, independent fundamental Baptists share several core beliefs, according to Christianity Today: that the Bible is the divinely inspired and inerrant word of God, for example, and that people should use only the King James Version of the text. Independent fundamental Baptists also have a countercultural streak that differentiates them from mainstream evangelicals, often refraining from engaging in pop culture and even contemporary worship music. Many also choose to home-school their kids.
Calvary Baptist Church has an affiliated school, Sanford Christian Academy. As of Sept. 11, the school was meeting in person and not requiring students to wear masks.
Ensuring that churches can remain open with minimum restrictions has been a key priority for many conservative Christian legal defense groups during the pandemic. These groups have painted the debate as primarily an issue of religious liberty, rather than of matter of protecting public health.
Maine courts have upheld state restrictions on religious services. In May, a federal judge ruled against Calvary Chapel Bangor, which was seeking an exemption to the state’s coronavirus restrictions.
The NCLL, which is representing Calvary Baptist Church, is led by David Gibbs, a lawyer who is known nationally for representing the parents of Terri Schiavo, a severely brain-damaged Florida woman at the center of a “right to die” case that animated religious conservatives in the mid-2000s.
Bell and his family have received several death threats “due to some media misinformation,” the NCLL said in its statement. “We live in a highly charged culture, and people are taking misinformation and threatening violence based on that misinformation. The church has had to eliminate several outreach programs and much of its on-line presence for security reasons. Acts of violence against houses of worship are a major problem in American society.”
The NCLL did not respond to HuffPost’s request to point to and correct the alleged “misinformation.”
Calvary Baptist Church has deactivated its YouTube and Facebook accounts, as well as its website. A local homeless shelter that used the church’s kitchen has cut ties with the church as a result of the congregation’s “noncompliance” with the state’s guidelines.
In Maine, more than 5,100 people have been diagnosed with COVID-19 and 140 have died since the outbreak began, according to the state CDC.
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