Mark Silk is Professor of Religion in Public Life at Trinity College and director of the college’s Leonard E. Greenberg Center for the Study of Religion in Public Life.
This week, it was reported that a couple of churches in the South had reclosed after reopening for in-person worship.
In Georgia, the Catoosa Baptist Tabernacle shut its doors after several families tested positive for COVID-19. In Texas, Holy Ghost Church, a Roman Catholic parish in Bellaire, did the same after a Redemptorist priest who worked there died of the virus.
In both cases, the reopenings came in response to actions by the state governor — though, strictly speaking, “actions” is not quite the right word.
Before Easter, Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp pleaded for churches to suspend in-person services but did not use his emergency powers to require them to do so. Likewise, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott issued a declaration designating “religious services conducted in churches, congregations, and houses of worship” as “essential services” that could take place in person (advising only that they be conducted “by practicing good hygiene, environmental cleanliness, and sanitation, and by implementing social distancing”).
Because woe unto governors in the Bible Belt who presume to tell churches what to do.
Take North Carolina. There, on May 5, Gov. Roy Cooper issued an executive order that exempted worship from his ongoing prohibition of “mass gatherings” and specifically permitted people to leave their homes to travel to a place of worship. But: “Because the risk of COVID-19 spread is much greater in an indoor setting, any gatherings of more than ten (10) people that are allowed under Subsection 6(A) shall take place outdoors unless impossible.”
In response to a request for clarification from state senators, Cooper’s office later issued a “Guidance for Religious Services and Mass Gathering Restrictions” that effectively permitted indoor worship of any size — by granting that “there may be situations in which particular religious beliefs dictate that some or all of a religious service must be held indoors and that more than ten persons must be in attendance.”
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Source: Religion News Service