(RNS) — Southern California pastors Jack Hibbs, Rob McCoy, Matt Brown and Dan Carroll agree with Gov. Gavin Newsom.
It’s time to start opening up their state — including its churches — after weeks of being shut down to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus.
They disagree, however, on how fast that should happen. And when churches should be allowed to worship in person.
Right now, churches can reopen in stage three of Newsom’s four-stage reopening plan. They can start holding services around the same time that movie theaters, gyms, nail salons and other areas designated as higher-risk workplaces reopen.
The church leaders are urging Newsom to bump religious services to stage two, which the state began moving into on Friday (May 8).
“We are not here to rebel. We’re not here as activists. We just want to be deemed as essential and open up,” Carroll, senior pastor for Water of Life Community Church in Fontana, told Religion News Service on Monday.
“We’re not asking for extra treatment, just fair treatment. … Let us open back up.”
Carroll, Hibbs, McCoy and Brown are among the pastors who support a “ Declaration of Essentiality for Churches, ” prepared by Tyler & Bursch, LLP, a law firm based in the Inland Empire that focuses on Christian institutions and churches.
The statement calls for churches to be seen as essential organizations by the state.
“The clergy of this state are convinced that they must reopen their ministries to fully serve the needs of their communities. The spiritual services of ministries are absolutely essential to the health and welfare of the people of California,” the statement reads. “Therefore, the religious leaders of California are coming together to make their voices heard in Sacramento. In times of national crisis, the clergy have a responsibility to lead.”
The declaration notes that churches, under the First Amendment, have the right to the free exercise of religion and the right to gather and worship.
Church leaders have also stressed that Christianity is a religion that should be practice in community — not alone.
“Christianity is not a personal religion, it is a ‘with others’ religion,” said Brown, pastor of Sandals Church in Riverside, in a video calling for churches to reopen.
The declaration also includes a link to a letter signed by California Republican legislators urging Newsom to include houses of worship in stage two.
In early May, a federal judge ruled that Newsom had the right to ban church assemblies in the interest of public health during the coronavirus outbreak. In a news conference on Thursday, Newsom said his office was working with faith leaders to address their concerns.
“Our fear is simply this, congregations of people mixing from far and wide coming together … in an enclosed space at large scales is a point of obvious concern and anxiety,” he said. “We are already working on guidelines for physical distancing and working with faith leaders looking at the unique conditions that exist within their own facilities. … None of this is etched in stone.”
“I take very seriously those concerns about people of faith and I’m very sensitive to those who want to get back into church,” he added. “But the health of those communities is foundational.”
Last week, Newsom said the third phase of his plan could come sooner than later.
“Phase three is not a year away. It’s not six months away. It’s not even three months away. It may not even be more than a month away,” he said.
A number of pastors and faith leaders gathered Thursday for a news conference at Water of Life Community Church to declare that churches are just as essential as grocery stores like Costco that have remained open during the pandemic.
Those who spoke were pastors and representatives of churches across the state, many in the Inland Empire. Among those in attendance were Diego Mesa, pastor of Abundant Living Family Church in Rancho Cucamonga; George Lamb, president of American Evangelical Christian Churches; and Jim Franklin, pastor of Cornerstone Church in Fresno.
The pastors said if they have been able to gather to make masks for health care workers, and to feed and help those in need, they should be able to gather for worship while following social distancing measures.
“It appears that the train has already left the station. The decision has been made by multiple hundreds of churches in California that they intend to open on May 30-31 on Pentecost weekend,” Carroll said. “They hope to do it with the governor’s approval and in partnership with the administration, but many of them are prepared to roll no matter what.”
During the news conference, Carroll spoke about plans to reopen while abiding by Centers for Disease Control and Prevention standards.
He mentioned that for a congregation like Water of Life Community Church, with a 3,300-seat auditorium, the plan is to host multiple services with about 250 people in attendance. He also mentioned using plexiglass protectors and plastic seat covers.
Carroll told RNS on Monday that a draft detailing reopening plans has been submitted to Newsom’s office that could work for small and large churches. He said they have been in frequent communication with Newsom’s office.
Carroll said those churches that have the right protections and protocols and that feel ready to safely open will do so the weekend of May 31 regardless of whether church services are bumped to stage two of the state’s reopening plan.
Water of Life Community Church is among those that will be opening.
“Nobody is going to move ahead until they’re ready and prepared and safe,” he said.