To defy or not to defy: For most houses of worship, it’s not even a question to consider, as they shutter their doors and switch to online services to thwart spreading the coronavirus.
But not all have complied.
On Friday The River at Tampa Bay Church in Florida was still planning to hold public church services for its thousands of members on Sunday.
As the COVID-19 virus has become a plague of seemingly biblical proportions around the world, the Tampa church’s founding pastor, Dr. Rodney Howard-Browne, has openly defied the state’s gathering ban on groups of 10 or more people and forced the closing of non-essential operations.
A lengthy legal article on the church’s website asks, “By what authority does the government declare the church non-essential?”
The River Church is not alone.
Life Tabernacle Church in Baton Rouge, La., has also defied the state’s gathering ban. Its pastor, the Reverend Tony Spell calls the ban “politically motivated.”
In a phone interview with Fox News, he says his church had been hated long before the gathering ban because it serves the poor and needy with its multi-racial congregation in a community that is 88 percent white.
He also says that his church offers the only hope for many who suffer. “I have seen members healed of HIV and cancer — diseases [that are] bigger than COVID-19.”
The fundamental right to freedom of religion in the United States is sacrosanct. And there are strict legal guidelines as to when the government can impose its authority. Most importantly, there has to be a compelling state interest.
Dr. Russell Moore, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission for the Southern Baptist Convention says protecting citizens from the COVID-19 pandemic is a clear case.
Moore asserts, “Governments are not specifically singling in on churches in a way that they’re not with other people. And there’s a compelling government interest here, which is public health and making sure that the most vulnerable among us aren’t sacrificed. And so I think in that situation, this is perfectly constitutional.”
But The River Church’s legal analyst begs to differ. Attorney KrisAnne Hall writes, “When politicians assign an ‘acceptable’ number of people allowed in a private church, they are reducing our right to Freedom of Religion to a first-come, first-served privilege.”
Brad Dacus, founder of the conservative legal group Pacific Justice Institute says, “this is a new ballgame.”
Dacus says he would never recommend any church violate local laws, but that PJI has vowed to defend and give legal counsel to any church that does.
He says, “it’s very possible that there could be a church out there that may not be complying with a mandate but yet also may have a bona fide defense, based on the way that the mandate is being applied to other parties and other entities.”
Spell wholeheartedly agrees. He points out that less than a mile from his church “there’s a Walmart with 200 cars in the parking lot, and nobody blinks an eye.”
While no one in Spell’s church has contracted the virus so far, other congregants at churches and houses of worship in other states have not been so fortunate.
Three members of churches in California and Georgia are dead after contracting COVID-19. It is believed that they caught the virus in their respective houses of worship. And nearly three dozen people connected to the 80 member Greers Ferry First Assembly of God in Arkansas have also tested positive for the new coronavirus including its pastor and his wife. And in Brooklyn, New York the Catholic diocese is reporting that members in several parishes have tested positive for COVID- 19 positive cases. All public masses are canceled there.
The Walmart is open in Baton Rouge near Spell’s church because it has a grocery store inside it which is considered essential. But Spell and Howard-Browne say feeding our souls and our spirits are also essential.