RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) – Some religious leaders are questioning the push to resume in-person worship services as a group prepares to file a lawsuit Thursday challenging Gov. Roy Cooper’s executive order.
“It’s too soon,” said Rev. Nancy Petty, senior pastor at Pullen Memorial Baptist Church in Raleigh. “I just don’t know why anyone would want to risk their congregation and their people having a situation like that where you have an outbreak and there’s a loss of life over it.”
Under phase one of the governor’s reopening plan, stores were allowed to open last Friday at 50 percent capacity. It also allows worship services to take place outside regardless of the number of people who attend, so long as they maintain social distancing.
Indoor services are still limited to 10 people with the exception of funerals, which are capped at 50.
The modified executive order the governor signed Friday says gatherings of more than 10 people “shall take place outdoors unless impossible.”
Republicans in the General Assembly criticized the fact that retailers could open at reduced capacity but houses of worship could not and sought clarification from the governor on the meaning of “impossible.”
A letter from the governor’s office reads, “For example, 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.”
On Thursday, Return America plans to hold a press conference in Raleigh announcing a lawsuit that will be filed challenging Cooper’s executive order.
“The question is whether the same standards and rules are being applied to religious institutions that are being applied to secular entities,” said Greg Wallace, a professor at Campbell Law School. “I think that would be an interesting question from a legal standpoint as to whether there is a sufficient justification for treating churches differently.”
In Kentucky, a federal judge ruled in favor of a church seeking to hold in-person services, paving the way for those services to resume last weekend. However, in Maine, a federal judge ruled against a church challenging that state’s executive order seeking to have in-person services, saying it could harm people.
In Raleigh, Pastor Tim Rabon of Beacon Baptist Church is seeking to hold in-person services again. He said that would be at 50 percent capacity, which would be as many as 800 people. He said the church would take various steps such as block off every other pew, ask people to enter one way and leave out another, wait to be dismissed by ushers, and not make materials available such as bulletins.
“We’ve been able to minister the Word of God to people, but nothing like God intended and not what I believe that the Founders of our country understood,” Rabon said. “My concern is, why can we not meet when retailers are at 50 percent?”
Gov. Cooper responded to that on Tuesday saying, “Some people are trying to compare this to retail, there’s a big difference, with retail, people are moving around and you don’t have as much a chance to spread the virus, a significantly greater chance when people are sitting or standing indoors and close together.”
Rev. Petty of Pullen Memorial said her church has established a team that’s been meeting throughout the COVID-19 crisis to determine how to hold worship services and eventually resume having them in person.
She said she agrees with the steps Cooper and state health officials have taken. She said she doubts even in phase three of the reopening process that her church would resume in-person services right away.
She said, “You don’t have to be sitting in a physical place to worship God. And so, I think that these are unprecedented times. It’s a global pandemic.”
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