As the Corona virus shut-down drags on, the threats to our religious liberties have increased alarmingly. On Easter, multiple MA churches were told they could not hold even “drive in” services. A number of local churches, on the other hand, were able to hold these types of parking lot, stay-in-your-car services with the appropriate social distancing precautions. All of the pastors with whom I’ve spoken about this want to honor the ‘governing authorities’ and be a good witness to their neighbors, Christian and non-Christian alike. They also want to know what they are legally authorized to do in the current circumstances, particularly when it comes to gathering together for worship.
At MFI, we are working to identify and clarify these new challenges to the fundamental constitutional guarantees of free exercise of religion and freedom of assembly. At the same time, we fully acknowledge the need to find ways of gathering for religious services that are responsible and safe during, and even in the wake of, a pandemic. For example, what churches can do for drive-in services may be a legal question, but the if, when and how are obviously best left to individual religious leaders to decide what is appropriate for their community.
What is the current status of churches and church gatherings in Massachusetts? Why were some churches allowed to have drive-in services and others were not? Who is making the decisions about ways of meeting, by what authority, and on what basis? Why is it permissible to have drive-through restaurants or full parking lots at hardware and liquor stores, but not drive-in church? The following are the key guidelines I believe you and your church should be familiar with right now:
- Federal Law: “…the First Amendment and federal statutory law prohibit discrimination against religious institutions and religious believers. Thus, government may not impose special restrictions on religious activity that do not also apply to similar nonreligious activity.” – Statement by U.S. Attorney General William Barr, April 14, 2020
- Governor Baker’s Emergency Order: “Churches, temples, mosques, and other places of worship shall not be required to close their brick and mortar premises to workers or the public; provided, however, that such institutions shall be required to comply with all limitations on gatherings.” The order “does not apply to public gatherings of more than 10 people in an unenclosed, outdoor space such as a park, athletic field, or parking lot.” – March 23,2020 Essential Services and Revised Gatherings Order
- MA Dept. of Public Health Guidance: Restates that these types of outdoor gatherings are “permissible” although “not advised,” and requires that individuals “follow social distancing protocols by remaining at least six feet apart.” – MA DPH Revised Guidance March 31, 2020
- MA List of COVID-19 Essential Services: “Workers at places of worship,” are included in this list. If indeed this means that “places of worship” are designated as essential, that would allow churches to meet in a modified fashion. Per the Governor’s order, the limitation on gatherings of more than 10 people “shall not apply to the operations or activities of any business or organization in its provision or delivery of COVID-19 Essential Services.” (We have an inquiry pending with the Executive Branch and hope to get clarification on this question soon.) – List managed by the MA Executive Office of Housing and Economic Development
Church leaders should know that they have the freedom to meet and worship together in appropriate and creative ways. At MFI, we are working to bring clarity to these rapidly evolving and sometimes contradictory guidelines as we think strategically about how best to move forward as life returns to some semblance of normalcy.
MFI is continuing to fight for faith, family and freedom during this unprecedented situation. We are adapting and adjusting, but our mission stays the same. So does our means of support – the generous donations from individuals like you. Please consider contributing now to help us meet the challenges of today and the opportunities of tomorrow.
P.S. If you are interested in reading in more detail about the question of drive in church services, you can download the letter I have drafted to MA pastors here.