Church gatherings face restrictions in face of Coronavirus
During this time, in which governmental authorities are enacting emergency regulations in response to the Coronavirus, it is important that Constitutional protections continue to be in force, including First Amendment guarantees of religious freedom. The Christian legal advocacy organization, First Liberty, issued three recommendations for ensuring religious freedom is preserved. They are:
1. Religious institutions should continue to serve their local communities.
2. Temporary, evenly applied restrictions may be permissible.
3. Extraordinary state action to limit the peaceful gathering of American citizens must be temporary.
CNS News released a story about new Virginia guidelines that raised concerns about the religious freedom rights of churches. The story opens up by saying:
Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam issued an executive order on Monday that is aimed at stopping the new coronavirus — and, in the process, makes it a criminal offense to hold a church service attended by more than 10 people.
Yes, his order makes it a crime for more than 10 people to gather in a church.The writer of the article, Terry Jeffrey, who saw that churches were not specifically mentioned in the article, reached out to the governor's office, and received this response from a spokesperson: "The Governor's EO 53 bans assemblies of more than 10 people, statewide. That includes gatherings at private schools, private clubs, parties, as well as any other social get-together, and religious services." Jeffrey points out:
Virginians now live in a state where holding a church service attended by 11 people has been unilaterally declared a crime by the governor.
The same executive order that creates this church-attending crime also declares that Virginia's state-owned liquor stores are "essential retail businesses" that "may remain open during their normal business hours."By contrast, according to the Montgomery Advertiser, Governor Ivey's ban on certain "non-essential" businesses does not include churches. The article says:
Faith institutions are not included in the non-essential business closures. However, non-work related gatherings of more than 10 people are prohibited. Non-work related gatherings of any size that "cannot maintain a consistent six-foot" distance between people are prohibited.And, like Virginia, Alabama's liquor stores continue to operate.
It is a near-unanimous recommendation from medical professional and public health officials to avoid communal gatherings like religious services.
A Christian Post article from this past Thursday states:
Authorities in countries including Nigeria, Ghana, Uganda and Greece have evacuated church services and arrested pastors in recent days as governments have prohibited large gatherings in an attempt to curb the spread of the novel coronavirus.
As governments across the globe have taken measures to ensure that citizens engage in social distancing so that they don’t spread a virus that has already killed at least 21,000 people worldwide as of Thursday, some religious leaders have continued to hold worship services anyway.Liberty University opens to some students while complying with law
During this crisis, it's important to get your information from trusted sources, and to be able to discern when a particular agenda is being pursued. Take, for instance, the recent reporting on Liberty University opening its facilities to some students. There are people who are hostile to President Jerry Falwell, Jr. because of his seemingly close relationship with President Trump. And, that, I believe was reflected in the reporting on Liberty's recent actions.
Baptist Press told the story:
Liberty University (LU) students began returning to campus Monday (March 23) from spring break while the school transitioned most classes to online instruction to deter the coronavirus (COVID-19). But certain classes will still convene on campus, LU said on its website.Why would Liberty take such action? The article relates:
Students, employees, prospective students and their families, and those doing business with LU are allowed on campus, but others are met with "no trespassing" signs, according to a story posted at liberty.edu.
Keeping residence halls open allows LU to accommodate hundreds of international students unable to return home, a university spokesperson told BP. Also, the university worked to accommodate commuter students unable to break leases at residences they occupy while attending LU.There, of course, was plenty of criticism online for Falwell, including an editorial published by Religion News Service criticizing his actions. The aforementioned Governor of Virginia, Ralph Northam, also criticized the university, to which the school responded:
According to the story on the school's website, signs have been posted "in the academic buildings, computer labs, and throughout the social gathering areas on campus ... to take certain seating out of service so students follow social distancing guidelines." The story added that "members of Liberty's student leadership team are also helping to enforce the new rules along with faculty and staff."
The Governor was quoting scripture today about Christian duty to protect our students. That's exactly what Liberty has been laboring tirelessly to do over the last couple of weeks. We really think it's un-Christian to turn students away and push any problems off on someone else. Most of our residential campus students are not in the Lynchburg area. Only about 10 percent of our residential students are currently here on campus. Many of those are international students who did not leave the country on Spring Break and have nowhere else to go. The Governor should understand that.
These students are in their living spaces attending classes and convocations online, not in classrooms or the Vines Center. They are getting their dining plan food by takeout instead of eating in the dining halls. The campus is fairly spacious and uncrowded, so they are spread out and observing social distancing. They are not working out in our fitness centers, not bowling in our bowling alley, not skating in the ice rink, and not engaging in our sports, intramurals, or student organization activities. Touchpoints across campus are being sanitized several times a day.A manager at the health district stated, "All operations appeared to be in compliance with the Governor's emergency order..."
The Central Virginia Health District came to Liberty yesterday, Tuesday, March 24, for an unannounced inspection, and they did not find Liberty in violation of any of the State of Virginia's Executive Order 53 – the Governor's order that placed temporary restrictions on restaurants, businesses and gatherings.
Southern Baptists cancel annual meeting in Orlando
I had reported that the greatly-anticipated United Methodist General Conference, scheduled for May in Minneapolis had been cancelled due to restrictions that were put in place by the venue due to the Coronavirus. At that meeting, delegates were expected to approve a plan to create a new denomination that would uphold traditional Biblical teaching on homosexuality, while the existing denomination would be allowed to change its stance and perhaps pursue a path to ordain gay clergy and to allow clergy to perform same-sex weddings. That action will have to wait.
Now, another large denomination has announced it will cancel its planned meeting this year. The Southern Baptist Convention has cancelled its 2020 annual meeting in Orlando in June. The convention's website states:
In light of the COVID-19 global pandemic which we believe constitutes a grave emergency, it is in the best interest of the SBC to cancel the Annual Meeting—for the first time in 75 years—out of a deep concern for the health and safety of messengers and attendees.
We are calling on all Southern Baptists to pray for an end to this global pandemic and that God will bring His Church together at this time to sharpen our focus like never before.
This is not a time for Southern Baptists to shrink back in timidity and fearfulness or be paralyzed with uncertainty. This is not the time to retreat. This is a time for us to advance the Gospel of Jesus Christ to every person in every town, every city, every state and every nation.Officers and committee members will remain in place until the next annual meeting, presumably in Nashville in 2021. This may represent a "cooling-off" period for Southern Baptists, who in the past year have sparred on a variety of topics. These range from the controversial Resolution 9, passed at last year's convention, which has been criticized for failing to completely renounce the theories of Critical Race Theory and intersectionality, to the formation of a new Conservative Baptist Network to call the denomination back to a Biblical foundation on issues such as Resolution 9, and the launching of an investigation by the SBC Executive Committee into actions and viewpoints of ithe SBC's public policy arm, the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. Those have allegedly resulted in some churches withholding funds from the denomination's Cooperative Program.