RALEIGH – Governor Roy Cooper announced earlier this week that North Carolina would be moving into Phase One of of reopening after weeks of people losing jobs, businesses wondering how long they can hang on, and worshipers worried their faith is being restricted. While businesses got some more clear rules for opening back up, churches have been left in the lurch with the vague language of the governor’s executive order.
It is hardly a small issue; a federal judge just informed the government in Kentucky that they cannot ban in-person services because it violates the free exercise of religion. Cooper’s order bans such services, while allowing 50 percent capacity in the local big box stores.
Rev. Mark Creech of the Christian Action League knows this issue deserves immediate redress and has advice for church leaders across the State in absence of clear signals from the governor.
From Dr. Creech:
There is a group of Romanian pastors in Illinois who have announced that they plan to reopen their churches for in-person services this Sunday, May 10th, no matter the consequences. They are protesting what they say are their state’s strict and oppressive coronavirus containment policies.
Their letter to the Governor of Illinois, Governor J.B. Pritzker, claims:
“The Romanian-Americans in our congregations have chosen Chicago as their homeland, many of them after fleeing communist oppression that targeted religious gatherings, houses of worship and communal exercise of their religion and faith…We love our adopted country and the freedom we have found here, too much to stay silent as you trample on our God-given rights. In light of our shared experience living behind the Iron Curtain – where discriminatory treatment of churches by authoritarian governments was the norm – we are determined to do everything we can to ensure that our beloved country and our state remain the beacons of freedom that brought us here.”
It should say something to Christian bodies everywhere in America, whenever fellow Christians, who have left authoritarian governments to make their home here, stand up boldly to guard the rights, more specifically the religious freedoms, which we so often take for granted. We should see these rights as hard-won over the course of history, and, therefore, non-negotiable, inviolable, and worthy of our passionate defense. Nevertheless, any response on our part must not reflect more passion than circumspection.
North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper’s executive orders and the way they have treated churches in the Tar Heel state have consistently made a values statement: Churches and what they provide for society is not as important as business.
For instance, in Subsection 6(A) of the Governor’s latest executive order, mass gatherings of more than ten people are prohibited, but the prohibition does not apply to worship services. However, in Subsection 6(C), we’re told: “Because the risk of COVID 19 spread is much greater in an indoor setting, any gatherings of more than ten (10) people that are allowed under Subsection 6(A) shall take place outdoors unless impossible.” Then Subsection 6(E) says that churches that want to have drive-in services may do so “if the participants all stay within their cars.”
Quite frankly, that doesn’t make much sense. Talk about confusing. How is any pastor or other church leader supposed to interpret the actual meaning of such an order? I suppose it may be good enough for government work, but it leaves the churches having to hazard a guess about the way to carry on.
However, Tami Fitzgerald, a good friend of the Christian Action League, attorney, and head of the North Carolina Values Coalition clarified in a recent press release what is clearly without question. Fitzgerald said:
“The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that only if the government interest is ‘compelling’ and if no alternative forms of regulation would serve that interest is the government allowed to burden (regulate) religious exercise. While the state most certainly has a compelling interest in stopping the spread of COVID 19, and none of us wants to play down the health risks at stake here, there are alternative forms of regulation that would serve the state’s interests – the social distancing and health precautions imposed on businesses. The problem with Governor Cooper’s order is that it singles out churches for different treatment. When businesses are permitted to open their doors to 50% of their customers because they can be trusted to implement social distancing and health precautions, why can’t churches do the same?”
It’s a mistake to minimize the importance of congregates physically meeting together for worship. The Scriptures admonish believers not to forsake assembling together (Hebrews 10:25). It is not a suggestion, but a command.
When I was a pastor, after inviting a prospective member to church, sometimes the person would say, “Well, pastor, I believe I can worship just as well by watching a service on television or hearing a minister preach on the radio.” I would respond, “Going to church by radio or television is a lot like trying to kiss your girlfriend over the telephone. It’s just not the same.” And it’s no different trying to worship online either, which is something to which many churches have now been forced to resort. If it was that simple, then why would we even bother folk about coming to church? These are not sufficient substitutes for authentic worship, nor would any responsible church leader recommend them, except in cases when there was no other choice.
But even in the case of COVID 19, a serious health pandemic, there is a choice. It’s just that Pharaoh Cooper won’t let God’s people go. Businesses can go, but the churches can’t go in like manner. That’s not only unconstitutional; it’s also morally wrong – a slight on the importance of the church and the integrity of its citizenship.
I make the following suggestions to the churches as a response.
- Church leaders should contact the Governor’s office, urging him to rework and clarify with some specificity what his executive order means for churches. Church leaders may also engage their church congregants to do likewise. Even Pharaoh was allowed the opportunity to mend his ways. Churches should do the same for Governor Cooper. I suggest the Governor be given until Friday, May 22nd, to respond.
To express your concerns to the Governor, go to this link: https://governor.nc.gov/contact/contact-governor-cooper
- If the Governor does not clarify his executive order in a manner that does not single out churches for different treatment within the allotted time, then churches should be prepared to organize for mass civil disobedience and reopen responsibly, exercising the same privleges, no more or no less, than what’s currently afforded to businesses. The Christian Action League is willing to facilitate this mass response, along with other Christian public-policy organizations or denominational groups willing to join in. Furthermore, the League will provide suggested safety measures for churches wanting to reopen.
Taking this course will involve risks, but I believe it is a reasonable and circumspect response. The current situation cannot be allowed to stand indefinitely. To do nothing would be a disservice to the cause of Christ, as well as our country.