New coronavirus limits bring new religious freedom tension

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The River Church

FILE – This Monday, March 30, 2020 file photo shows The River Church in Tampa, Fla. Pastor Rodney Howard-Browne was arrested Monday, March 30, 2020, for violating a county order by hosting a large number of congregants at the church. (AP Photo/Chris O’Meara)

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NEW YORK (AP) — Despite state and local limits on public gatherings, some faith leaders have persisted in holding in-person services — a matter of religious freedom, they say, as the nation approached its fourth Sunday battling the coronavirus pandemic.

The most high-profile clash over in-person worship – and crowd limits designed to stop the virus’ spread — came in Florida, where Pastor Rodney Howard-Browne was arrested Monday for violating a county order by hosting a large number of congregants at his Tampa church.

Howard-Browne said after his release he would move future worship online, but the county later ended its effort to apply limits on large gatherings to religious services after a statewide order described religious gatherings as essential.

Law enforcement officials in Louisiana and Maryland took separate action this week against pastors who continue to hold in-person services in the face of stay-home orders in most states.

But more than a half-dozen of those state orders provide a degree of exemption for religious activity, underscoring the political sensitivity of the decisions being made by states and localities. Vice President Mike Pence said this week that churches should not host groups bigger than 10 people.

President Donald Trump said Saturday that he would be watching Palm Sunday services broadcast from Riverside, Calif., from a laptop. “People are watching on computers and laptops,” Trump said. “It’s sad.”

Trump said he asked about endorsing the idea of people being able to gather outside for services on Easter Sunday if they practice social distancing, but recalled being told “Do we want to take a chance on doing that when we have been doing so well?” Trump earlier said that “my biggest disappointment is that churches can’t meet in a time of need.”

The application of guidance on the ground has raised questions for some faith leaders.

Pastor Alvin Gwynn Sr., of Baltimore’s Friendship Baptist Church, said that police tried to halt services at his church on Sunday even though he had limited in-person attendance to 10 people.

Gwynn said in an interview that he still plans to hold in-person Easter services, citing the First Amendment’s protections for freedom of worship and assembly. Baltimore has “been through a lot” in recent years, said Gwynn, who leads a local ministers’ group that criticized the city’s police department leadership in 2015 following the death of 25-year-old Freddie Gray.

“Which is safer, in the church with potential virus, or go out the door and catch a bullet?” Gwynn said.

Instructions for church gatherings in Maryland have been issued piecemeal. State guidance dated Monday described houses of worship as non-essential under a stay-home order issued by Maryland GOP Gov. Larry Hogan that allowing them only to conduct “minimal operations.” But follow-up guidance dated Wednesday states that “in-person services” can be held with 10 or fewer people.

In Florida, attorneys at the Christian legal nonprofit representing Howard-Browne tabled their plans to file a federal lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the county order used against him after the county reversed course.

“Instead of using a scalpel to address this, they’re using a chainsaw,” said Liberty Counsel founder Mathew Staver, who added that executive orders designed to limit gatherings during the pandemic were “flying off printers and being signed by government officials with no constitutional readiness.”

On Wednesday, Florida Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis issued a stay-home order describing religious services as essential, followed by a second order that overrides any localities’ conflicting guidelines — an edict that could impede local attempts to shut down future large worship services.

Elsewhere, Texas GOP Gov. Greg Abbott also described religious services as essential in his order to limit gatherings during the pandemic. In Georgia, where some of the state’s worst virus outbreaks have been linked to large religious services, GOP Gov. Brian Kemp on Thursday issued a stay-home order that states no faith-based gathering can occur with more than 10 people unless they keep a six-foot distance.

While some faith leaders who continue to hold in-person services have pointed to their First Amendment rights, including Ohio’s Solid Rock megachurch, it’s not clear that their activity during the pandemic would be legally protected.

State or local governments would be “constitutionally justified” in including houses of worship in their closure orders during a public health emergency as long as those orders are “generally applicable,” said John Inazu, a law professor at Washington University in St. Louis who studies the First Amendment.

But the burden shifts if a government attempts to stop a church from holding services with less than 10 people while allowing secular businesses to operate under the same conditions, Inazu added: “There, I think there’s a very plausible religious freedom claim.”

Before issuing his order, Kemp held two calls with hundreds of clergy from across Georgia, urging houses of worship to stream services online or implement other social distancing measures, like holding drive-up services where people listen from their cars.

Most religious services across the country have already moved online.

“We’re making the best of a bad situation. It’s going to be devastating in the short term,” said Todd Gaddis, senior pastor of the First Baptist Church in Dallas, Georgia, referring to the loss of donations from in-person services. “But I’m confident there will be spiritual dividends in the long run.”

And the Trump administration’s entreaties for churches to stop meeting in person extended beyond the White House. Sam Brownback, the president’s special envoy for religious freedom, said Thursday that “religious groups should practice social distancing.”

Brownback, a Catholic, said that he’s skipped Mass for “several weeks, and it’s the longest period I’ve gone without going to Mass. And I think people should be doing this to stop the spread of the virus.”

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Associated Press writers Ben Nadler in Atlanta and Matthew Lee in Washington contributed to this report.

Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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