Some Pastors Defy Orders to Close Churches, Continue to Hold Services Amid COVID-19 Lockdown
‘We Will Continue’
It has become near universal wisdom by this point in the COVID-19 pandemic that social distancing limits the spread of the disease. Some pastors, however, have continued to hold service, even drawing crowds of over 1,000 people for worship services.
In Central, La., Pastor Tony Spell was issued a misdemeanor court summons on Tuesday for six charges of holding large public gatherings in violation of the governor’s orders. A few hours later, Spell was holding service at Life Tabernacle Church once again.
“We are needy people. Our souls are lost,” Spell said. “We need help, and the church is the salvation center of the soul, the sanctuary where we come together and meet.”
He justified keeping his church open because people congregate in Walmart, too, but it is open.
“We have a constitutional right to congregate. We will continue,” he told CBS News. In a Facebook Live video on Wednesday, he remained adamant.
“We will continue to have church. This is a government overreach. They are asking us as a government to stop practicing our freedom of religion. And we have a mandate from God to assemble and to gather together and to keep doing what we’re doing.”
Spell said the pandemic is “politically motivated” and that he has a duty to defend his religious rights. During his Sunday service, Spell said 1,265 people were in attendance, some of who were bussed from other parishes.
Although authorities did not arrest Spell, they had some words for the preacher, CNN reported.
“Instead of showing the strength and resilience of our community during this difficult time, Mr. Spell has chosen to embarrass us for his own self-promotion,” said Central Police Chief Roger Corcoran.
Corcoran acknowledged Spell’s intention to continue to hold service in disobedience of the law.
“This is not an issue over religious liberty, and it’s not about politics,” he said. “We are facing a public health crisis and expect our community’s leaders to set a positive example and follow the law.”
While Corcoran failed at convincing Spell to close his doors, so did the sheriff, state police, fire marshal, and White House evangelical advisor, he said. His defiance drew some protestors after Tuesday’s service. One sported a sign declaring, “God don’t like stupid.”
Another waited outside with a bullhorn and taunted Spell to walk outside and answer for his actions.
Florida Governor John Bel Edwards issued the prohibition on public gatherings of more than 10 people and asked churches to stream their services online or meet in small groups, CBS News reported. The penalties for violating the order include a maximum jail sentence of six months and a $500 fine.
In Tampa, Fl., the sheriff’s office was not as accommodating as Louisiana authorities, however. On Monday, deputies arrested Pastor Rodney Howard-Browne, pastor at the River at Tampa Bay megachurch. Howard-Browne was charged with unlawful assembly and a violation of health emergency rules, Hillsborough County Sheriff Chad Chronister said.
Attorneys for the sheriff’s department had previously asked Howard-Browne to suspend its services and respect the emergency law. He held two services on Sunday before he was arrested, CNN reported.
“His reckless disregard for human life put hundreds of people in his congregation at risk,” Chronister said at a press conference Monday, “as well as put thousands of residents who may interact with them in danger.”
Howard-Browne disputed the order to close churches, saying he would keep his open until Armageddon. The church’s bible school also will remain open, he said, “because we are raising up revivalists, not pansies.”
A statement on the church’s website, which was not authored by Howard-Browne, argued that the order to close was a violation of church and state. Furthermore, the government cannot declare churches as non-essential, it read.
Virus Spreads at Kansas Church Conference
Florida State Attorney Andrew H. Warren said emergency orders are “constitutionally valid,” however. John Inazu, the Sally D. Danforth Distinguished Professor of Law and Religion at Washington University, opined on whether churches would have a valid legal argument for The Atlantic.
As the orders have so far come from state governments, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act would not apply, however he approached the problem as if it did. Under such a scenario, a court would have to apply a test known as “strict scrutiny” to determine whether the government is in the right.
“Under this test, the government would need to articulate a compelling interest, and its directive would need to be narrowly tailored and executed in the least means toward accomplishing its interest,” Inazu wrote.
Although in most cases the government would fail to clear that high bar, emergency orders to prevent COVID-19 from spreading would likely justify the closure of churches because it is in the interest of public health.
COVID-19 has already been confirmed to spread at a church conference in Kansas City, Kan. The Kansas Department of Health and Environment (KDHE) said multiple cases were linked to the Kansas East Jurisdiction’s 2020 Ministers and Workers Conference which took place March 16 to 22 at the Miracle Temple Church of God in Christ.
KDHE did not specify an exact number of confirmed cases from the conference, but did ask attendees to monitor their health for symptoms and to contact their healthcare providers before seeking medical attention, KSN News reported.