8 Pastors Who Have Pushed to Keep Their Churches Open

Almost as soon as the COVID-19 pandemic began, a tug of war developed between federal, state and local policymakers and a small group of sometimes angry Christian pastors bent on holding in-person services. But as stay-at-home restrictions were gradually lifted and the definition of “essential services” expanded, a second wave of church leaders appealed to the First Amendment to challenge bans on gatherings with lawsuits and open defiance. They’ve had help from the Justice Department and, most recently, an order from President Donald Trump deeming churches essential services. Meet the pastors who have refused to close.

Tony Spell
Life Tabernacle Church, Baton Rouge, Louisiana

Pastor Tony Spell speaks to media after holding an evening service at Life Tabernacle Church in Central, Louisiana, on March 31, 2020. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

Spell, one of the first — and most outspoken — pastors to resist state coronavirus restrictions, preached to a crowd of more than 300 at his church in early March and continued holding services through April in defiance of his state’s stay-at home order and his own house arrest. “We feel we are being persecuted for the faith by being told to close our doors,” Spell told The Washington Post. “We’re a Pentecostal denomination, and when we gather and pray the Holy Ghost comes in the midst. There are healings, signs, wonders, some things done together in the church that can’t be done in a live stream.” Spell was later charged with aggravated assault for driving a bus toward a person protesting outside the church.

Jonathan Shuttlesworth
Revival Today, Pittsburgh

Jonathan Shuttlesworth. Video screengrab via YouTube

In late March, the televangelist and pastor called for “an outdoor Easter blowout service. Not online. A national gathering. You come from all over. Like Woodstock. And we’re gonna gather and lift up Jesus Christ.” Not content to host his own gathering, Shuttlesworth criticized churchgoers who would take anti-virus precautions: “If you’re putting out pamphlets and telling everybody to use Purell before they come into the sanctuary … you should just turn in your ministry credentials and burn your church down,” he said.

Rodney Howard-Browne
The River at Tampa Bay Church, Tampa, Florida

Pastor Rodney Howard-Browne, top, prays over individuals during a service on March 29, 2020, at The River Church in Tampa, Florida. Video screengrab

By early April, 18 states had shut down and authorities began to put teeth in their bans. Some pastors resorted to conspiracy theories to explain their resistance. After initially refusing to shut down, Howard-Browne finally closed his nondenominational megachurch in early April — to protect his congregants “not from the virus but from a tyrannical government,”  according to The Hill — after he was arrested for hosting Sunday services with nearly 500 people in attendance. He has claimed China created the coronavirus as a weapon to destroy the U.S. economy. “The World Health Organization has come in and is using a pandemic to take over not just America, but the whole of the world,” Howard-Browne told viewers of a livestream. Charges against him were dismissed earlier this month.

Stanley “Rusty” Chatfield III
Northern Michigan Baptist Bible Church, Alanson, Michigan

Stanley “Rusty” Chatfield III. Photo via northernbible.org

As state bans exempted businesses deemed essential — including big-box stores, liquor stores and, in some places, marijuana dispensaries — some pastors began to challenge the definition of “essential,” claiming churches were unfairly left out. The day that his son, Michigan House Speaker Lee Chatfield, filed his own suit against Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s executive orders,  Chatfield joined two other church leaders in filing a suit claiming the governor’s stay-at-home order violated the First Amendment rights to free exercise and assembly. “Churches are essential to the health and well-being of everyone,” said Chatfield’s lawyer. “If Walmart and Home Depot can open and sell goods to customers while following CDC guidelines, surely churches can do the same.”

Whitmer later made clear that she would not apply penalties to churches for gatherings exceeding the limits outlined in her bans.

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Source: Religion News Service