Churches Will Defy Governor’s Lockdown, Reopen May 26. If Abortion Clinics Can Open, “Why Can’t We?”

State   Ryan Colby   May 20, 2020   |   7:06PM    St. Paul, Minnesota

The Minnesota Catholic Conference and The Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod in Minnesota sent Governor Tim Walz separate letters today announcing that they would be resuming worship services on May 26 despite Governor Walz’s current COVID-19 executive order which allows retailers to operate at 50 percent capacity but caps church worship services at ten people. Governor Walz’s latest re-opening order allows the Mall of America to open its doors to those seeking retail therapy but disallows churches from providing spiritual healing to their congregations. At the same time, The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty sent Governor Tim Walz and Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison a legal letter explaining why continuing to keep churches closed violates the First Amendment. Also representing the Catholic and Lutheran Churches is global law firm Sidley Austin LLP.

On May 13, 2020, Governor Tim Walz issued an executive order with guidelines for reopening commerce in the State of Minnesota. The order allows malls, shops, and other retailers to open their doors at fifty percent capacity, allows businesses—from pet-grooming services to medical cannabis operations—to resume in-person operations, and even announces a phased plan for reopening bars and restaurants, but explicitly leaves in place bans on in-person worship services for more than ten people. Even Minnesota casinos are reopening starting May 26. After weeks of dialogue with Governor Walz to try to achieve equal treatment for houses of worship, today the Catholic and Lutheran Churches announced that they would resume worship services for their congregations at thirty-three percent capacity on Tuesday, May 26, with Pentecost Sunday, May 31, as the first day of Sunday services. The churches have committed to instituting rigorous social distancing and hygiene protocols to prevent the spread of coronavirus.

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“Darkness and despair have taken hold of so many of our fellow Americans in the face of the economic and social hardship of the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Archbishop Hebda. “Faith has always been a source of comfort and strength and now more than ever it is of the utmost importance that we are able to meet the spiritual needs of our community.”

Since the beginning of Minnesota’s stay-at-home order suicide hotlines have seen spikes in calls as high as 300 percent in parts of the State, as well as a 25 percent increase in calls about domestic violence. Millions of Americans seek comfort and strength in their faith communities, which also serve as safe spaces for victims of domestic violence and those suffering with addictions.

“Throughout this crisis, we have been committed to modeling Christ’s love by protecting people from the spread of illness. That’s why it is so disheartening that the Governor has subordinated our spiritual well-being to the economic well-being of the State,” said Rev. Dr. Lucas Woodford, president of the Minnesota South District of The Lutheran ChurchMissouri Synod. “Now that the State has deemed the risk of spreading coronavirus low enough to reopen non-essential business, we respectfully believe that it is our right and duty to safely resume public ministry to the faithful even without the support of the Governor.”

In March, well before statewide stay-at-home orders came into effect, both the Minnesota Catholic Conference and The Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod voluntarily suspended in-person worship services to preserve the health and safety of their communities. On May 7, and again on May 16 the churches presented Governor Walz with proposed protocols for resuming in-person worship services in line with the recommendations of the World Health Organization and United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

 

“If malls, casinos, liquor stores, bars, and restaurants are reopening, why can’t Minnesota churches?” said Eric Rassbach, vice president and senior counsel at Becket. “Our Constitution stands for ‘equal justice under law’ and imposing a special disability on churches is anything but. Governor Walz and Attorney General Ellison should ensure equal treatment for churches and houses of worship—especially because they are crucial to helping our nation overcome this crisis.”

 

The head of the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice yesterday sent a letter to California Governor Gavin Newsom explaining that, under federal law, California could not force houses of worship to lag behind other organizations during the reopening process.