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Reyna Martinez, who lives in New York lost both parents COVID-19 just a few days apart. The church where she and her daughter are parishioners have helped her deal with the loss, emotionally and financially. (May 20)

AP Domestic

On a recent Sunday, Rod Loy, senior pastor at the First Assembly of God in North Little Rock, Arkansas, delivered the message of the Gospel through his computer screen.

“It’s easy to live out your faith when everything is going good,” he preached to his congregation. “But the real test is difficult. How does your faith hold up when the doctor gives you a bad report, the kids get bad grades and you can’t pay your bills? How does your faith hold up when you lose your job in the middle of a pandemic? The true test of faith is a difficulty, hardship and persecution.” 

As he spoke, members of the church typed “amen” in the comment section. The church has used Facebook to livestream its services for the past couple of months.  

Across the USA, faith leaders debate how they can continue to pray in fellowship with others while keeping staff and members safe in the age of coronavirus. Some churches have moved completely online, others have embraced drive-in service, and some are adamant about holding in-person gatherings. 

Proponents of church services argue that places of worship are a crucial source of strength, community and solace for many Americans, who should be allowed to safely congregate. Critics said soaring cases of COVID-19  have made it impossible for large groups to interact and follow public health guidelines. In July, the Supreme Court ruled for the second time during the pandemic that churches can be restricted from worshiping to protect public health.

Churches that insist on members worshiping shoulder to shoulder have been linked to outbreaks. At the Warrior Creek Missionary Baptist Church in Alabama, more than 40 people were infected by the coronavirus after attending a weeklong revival event. In San Francisco, at least 10 people tested positive for coronavirus after attending a wedding with roughly 100 people at Saints Peter and Paul’s Church. In Copperas Cove, Texas, five members of Victory Baptist Church tested positive for coronavirus, and 20 members had symptoms. 

The Trump administration called on local governments to allow places of worship to safely reopen. 

“We really do believe that, as we open up America again, we need to open up America’s churches and houses of worship because faith is the wellspring from which the American people have always drawn strength in challenging times,” Vice President Mike Pence said this month after visiting a church in Florida.

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The push to reopen churches has intensified as the pandemic stretches on. 

During the early days of the COVID-19 crisis, many churches either stopped meeting or moved their services online. As COVID-19 restrictions lifted, some faith leaders began having in-person services or filed lawsuits against officials in California,  Mississippi,  Kansas and New Mexico, arguing their First Amendment rights were violated by limitations on church gatherings. 

In Nevada, leaders at Calvary Chapel Dayton Valleyfiled a lawsuit in May against Gov. Steve Sisolak’s attendance limit of 50 people at religious gatherings. The lawsuit pointed out that Sisolak’s rule allowed casinos, restaurants, bars, theme parks and gyms to operate at 50% capacity. 

Ryan Tucker, senior counsel and director of the Center for Christian Ministries with the Alliance Defending Freedom, a conservative legal organization that advocates for religious freedom, said Calvary Chapel Dayton Valley members experienced loneliness, depression and marital problems when the congregation didn’t meet in person.

“There is not a First Amendment right to gamble at the casino,” Tucker said in an interview. “You got First Amendment protection and issues in play against this church and any other across the United States.”

In its 5-4 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court denied Calvary’s request to block state restrictions without explanation. Conservative members of the church said the decision violated the First Amendment. 

“A public health emergency does not give governors and other public officials carte blanche to disregard the Constitution for as long as the medical problem persists,” Justice Samuel Alito wrote in a dissent joined by Justices Clarence Thomas and Brett Kavanaugh.

In Washington, Gov. Jay Inslee announced relaxed restrictions for in-person worship. 

Amid the legal maneuvering, many churches hold digital gatherings. 

In Philadelphia, officials at St. Peter’s Church chose to remain remote despite the state lifting its stay-at-home orders June 4. The Rev. Sarah Hedgis said she won’t risk other people’s health by having in-person services.  

“I feel like the guiding principle for us is to love your neighbor as yourselves,” Hedgis said.

Neal Curtiss, an associate pastor at Living Hope Church in Vancouver, Washington, does online and drive-in services. He is waiting to see what happens in the next few months as schools reopen to determine whether it will be safe to resume service in the building. 

“There’s a reality that people may not come back inside the building,” Curtiss said.

The Rev. Reginald Woullard of Shady Grove Baptist Church in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, said it would be nice for churches to gather in person, but members can still worship as a community online.

“Churches should be built on the word,” Woullard said.

Joseph W. Walker III, the bishop of Mt. Zion Baptist Church in Nashville, said his congregation is considering having fewer in-person services or none at all even after the pandemic ends. The church has seen a 30% increase in engagement since services went online.

Those who insist on worshiping together said they look out for church members’ needs. 

“People are dealing with the mental health struggles of quarantine, and the church can be a lifeline for them,” said Angie Hall, executive pastor at the Church for All Nations in Tacoma, Washington, which has both online and in-person services. 

The Rev. Jeremiah Williamson at Grace and St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Colorado Springs, Colorado, said factors in his decision to do in-person services included a handful of members struggling with technology, as well as many feeling lonely and isolated. 

“People recognize that there’s something critical in gathering together in church communities and have a new appreciation for the time together that we have,” Williams said.

Anthony Weber, an elder at the Church of the Living God in Traverse City, Michigan, said some members left to attend other churches because they weren’t happy about how the church is dealing with the pandemic. 

“Most churches are trying to balance the tension of trying to let people get back together while trying also to honor what the governor is asking of them,” Weber said. 

Church of the Living God holds in-person services where members maintain social distance in the pews, but worship is done outside because the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said that when people sing, they produce aerosols that can spread the virus. According to a study, 53 out of 61 people contracted the virus after attending a choir rehearsal. 

Weber said he is thinking about how to change the structure of the service once the weather changes. When it gets too cold, he is not sure whether church members will want to sing outside. 

Benjamin Karner, a senior pastor at First Baptist Church Laredo in Laredo, Texas, said services were held only online at the beginning of the coronavirus restrictions, then moved to a drive-in service. The church now holds in-person services at 25% of the building’s capacity, as well as online services. Karner said the changes have been hard on the congregation, but the church has to make sure that it continues to share its love of Christ. 

“I’m urging people to take a step back and realize that sometimes life does change,” Karner said. “God works through that change. If you can change and adapt, you’ll find new opportunities that God is putting before us. If we can take advantage of those opportunities, we’ll see the love of God shine through.”  

Contributing: Elinor Aspegren

Read or Share this story: https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2020/08/15/church-restrictions-amid-covid-19-faith-leaders-find-ways-operate/5539943002/

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