On Sunday, just days after Donald Trump encouraged houses of worship to reopen even in states under coronavirus lockdowns, churches from Maine to California defied the law and welcomed worshippers at live services.
In Washington State—the early ground zero of COVID-19 in America—Covenant Christian Church in Spokane welcomed a sizeable, mask-less crowd for morning prayers, according to the local Spokesman-Review. The Reverend Ken Peters, who claims he’d been holding in-person services since May 3, blasted the “satanic” agenda of Governor Jay Inslee’s stay-at-home order and vowed to start offering a second in-person service each Sunday evening.
And in California, where in-person services also remain banned and where officials say more than 180 people were exposed to the virus at an illicit church gathering on Mother’s Day, News Channel 3 reported that Church Unlimited in Indio flouted state rules by reopening its doors this weekend. On Saturday, a Pentecostal church in Chula Vista also filed an emergency motion with the U.S. Supreme Court in hopes of forcing Governor Gavin Newsom to allow churches to open.
Meanwhile, an independent Baptist church in southern New Jersey defied that state’s lockdown to hold Sunday services in a challenge to Governor Phil Murphy—whose executive order has kept churches closed since March, and who on Friday announced he’d allow gatherings of up to 25 people, but only outdoors. The Solid Rock Baptist Church in Berlin, along with the nearby Bible Baptist Church in Clementon, invited their members to the first in-person services since March, when those initial stay-at-home orders went into effect.
Both of the Solid Rock pastors, Charles Clark Jr. and Charles Clark III, couched their reopening as a First Amendment right. They insisted that it was a patriotic act, and during their Sunday sermons, they repeatedly invoked Memorial Day, reminding congregants that men and women died to give Americans their freedom. And that freedom, they said, included the right to assemble and practice religion inside their church.
Out of precaution, coronavirus restrictions in New Jersey have kept church members worshipping via livestreams or limited to drive-in services. But many seemed eager to return, like the Clarks, who downplayed the risks of transmission by arguing that people were allowed in all sorts of places not protected by the Constitution, like Walmart and Starbucks.
“I was just in town, it was hopping,” Pastor Andrew Reese of the Clementon Bible Baptist Church told The Daily Beast on Saturday night. He had reopened last Sunday, and already has a court date in June for breaking Murphy’s executive order. That won’t stop him though, he said, even if he isn’t certain what the legal consequences might be.
Nor did it seem to be stopping Solid Rock members. The scene at the church Sunday morning looked less like the start of prayer and more like the beginning of a professional sporting event, as hundreds of congregants—many dressed in their church finest—flooded in to attend the 10 AM service.
During a fiery press conference before the service, the elder Pastor Clark delivered a sermon of sorts to the news cameras, calling Governor Murphy a “tyrant” and going so far as to read out the Merriam-Webster definition of the word in full. At one point, he even compared New Jersey to Nazi Germany, emphasizing that the U.S. Constitution was at stake. “This is not North Korea,” he said. “This is not China.”
That much was clear. American flags were everywhere—adorning the lawn, plopped next to the podium, draped behind the altar. Music blared from a pair of speakers. People carried signs and posters that read “Church Is Essential.”
A group of men and women in orange vests greeted members as they drove into the parking lot and led them to socially distanced spaces. At the entrance to the building, an usher directed church-goers through propped open doors, where they had their temperatures checked.
“This is so stupid,” a man murmured to church staff.
Inside, members had to sit at least six feet away from each other in the pews. Nobody could attend without a mask either—even if they disagreed.
“Personally, I can’t stand the masks,” said Andrew Heier, who has been a member of Solid Rock for five years and identified himself as a supporter of President Trump. “I’ll wear them if I have to. If this was on a scale, though, I’d fall somewhere in the middle: States need to reopen, but they need to do it carefully. Just because I want to go to church doesn’t mean I don’t care about other people.”
“It’s not, like, church is open, and then everybody’s sitting on each other’s laps and licking door handles,” he continued.
The younger Clark, who led Sunday morning’s service, said that Solid Rock and Clementon Bible Baptist were prepared to file a lawsuit should the governor not change his executive order and deem churches essential by the end of the week. Solid Rock already sent a letter directly to Murphy last week, and dozens of other pastors together recently signed a separate letter, urging the governor to reopen churches in New Jersey and threatening him with legal action should he not concede.
“This week, with or without permission, churches will be open,” the elder Clark promised during the service.
“Jesus,” he later said, “is essential.”
A similar vibe emanated from in-person services in Orrington, Maine on Sunday, where between 200 and 400 people gathered inside an old gym that now serves as Calvary Chapel. They were there not only to worship God but also to defy a state order that churches not reopen until May 29.
Governor Janet Mills announced May 22 that churches in Maine could reopen a week later for in-person services only if certain rules are followed. These include a 50-person limit, the wearing of face masks and maintaining six feet of space between attendees unless they are members of the same household.
Also on May 22, President Donald Trump declared he was identifying houses of worship as “essential places that provide essential services” and called upon state governors to allow them to reopen immediately.
“The governors need to do the right thing and allow these very important essential places of faith to open right now, for this weekend,” Trump said. “If they don’t do it, I will override the governors.”
During the 8 a.m. service, Calvary pastor Ken Graves thanked Trump for his support. “I’m very grateful to the chief executive for speaking up for our churches,” he told those gathered for the service, none of whom were wearing masks. Outside, a handful of people were wearing them but only intermittently.
Graves encouraged worshippers to resist the “police state.” Earlier this month, the church filed a complaint in U.S. District Court alleging that Mills’ decision to limit gatherings to 10 or fewer people violates religious freedom guaranteed by the Constitution. The church lost but has appealed the decision. During a prayer, Graves asked God to “open the eyes of the state” and “cause people to recognize what is being done.”
Speaking to the Daily Beast after the service, Graves said the church has been “in a state of defiance” against Maine for the past month.
“We’ll continue to meet in person in greater numbers than the state will allow,” he said. “The state has no authority to ban people from going to church.”
Calvary Chapel has been holding outdoor services every Sunday for the past month to demonstrate that “what really matters to us is being able to gather,” Graves said. On Sunday, two days after Trump’s announcement, the 8 a.m. service moved indoors. Two additional services took place outside as they had previously. The church will continue this schedule.
Graves maintains congregation members are just as safe attending church services indoors as they are going to Walmart.
“We can do a better job [of keeping people safe] than Walmart can,” he said. “We’re motivated by love.”
“We still recognize that it’s a highly contagious virus,” said Eric Meyerson, who serves as an assistant pastor. Attendees were advised not to shake hands and to make use of the hand sanitizer that was provided. Stacie Haverlock, who heads the church’s school ministry, regularly sanitized surfaces including door handles, and cleaned the restrooms between uses.
The church removed some of the seating on the gym floor to create physical distance. In the bleachers on either side of the room, people sat in small groups presumably with close family members. A few people sat outside the gym, watching the service on a TV screens. When services were over, people crowded around a table in the parking lot to get Trump campaign signs.
People are allowed to address their physical health during the pandemic and should be able to address their spiritual health, said Haverlock.
“There’s just nothing like getting together with fellow believers and worshipping our god,” she said.
Jade Dileonardi, who attended the indoor service with her husband, Michael, agreed.
“It strengthens our faith having other believers around,” she said.
Read more at The Daily Beast.
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