(AP) — For the first time in two months, there was clapping, singing, and fellowship inside Stithton Baptist Church in Radcliff, Kentucky, as members of the congregation returned to the sanctuary for Sunday morning services on May 24. There also were masks, hand sanitizer, and social distancing.
On a weekend when President Donald Trump declared houses of worship essential and asked governors to reopen them, some congregants around the country headed for their places of worship with numerous precautions in place. Those services in the U.S. followed a frantic two days in which at least one governor reached an agreement with religious leaders in Minnesota to ease restrictions on in-person services while a federal appeals court upheld another’s continuing shutdown of such services.
For Stithton Baptist, the reopening wasn’t about restrictions, Trump’s declaration, or the release of guidelines by the federal Centers for Disease, Control and Prevention for reopening faith organizations.
On May 8, a federal court halted Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear’s temporary ban on mass gatherings from applying to in-person religious services, clearing the way for Sunday church services, with guidelines. Pastor Denver Copeland said his congregation has been meeting in the church parking lot for drive-in services since March 29 and hasn’t rushed back, even though his sanctuary space meets the 33% occupancy requirement.
“We just weren’t ready,” the pastor said.
They made their plans to hold in-person services three weeks ago. Copeland said Friday’s CDC release of religious guidelines “made it all the more legit” for the timing of their return to in-church services. In a sanctuary which can legally accommodate 1,400, the normal Sunday attendance is 200. On Sunday, every other pew was marked off to enforce social distancing, and individual bags of masks, gloves, and hand sanitizer were available at all three entrances that were left open prior to and after the service.
Tension over when and how to reopen houses of worship has varied depending on the state, as different areas set their own pace for easing pandemic stay-at-home orders. While many announced they would resume in-person services next Sunday on Pentecost, others joined Stithton today in returning to their places of worship.
Faith Baptist Church in Palmhurst, Texas, west of McAllen, held an hour-long service. The church announced its plans on its website May 19, along with an extensive list of precautions, including urging members over 65 or those with immune system vulnerabilities to consider viewing the service online.
“We’re doing our best to follow what the government has asked us to do. But we also want to be able to try and have services so this is probably how it’s going to be looking for at least a few weeks,” Tad Wychopen II, the assistant pastor, told the attendees.
During his message, Senior Pastor R. David Harris also emphasized the cautious approach. “Church gathering is important but at this point there’s still health issues and we still don’t know where things are going,” he said.
Over the weekend at least one standoff between a governor eased while another intensified. Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz announced he scrapped his 10-person limit on group gatherings and allowing churches to open at 25% occupancy if certain safety guidelines are met. While the leader of the Catholic Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, Archbishop Bernard Hebda, welcomed the change, he said parishes should not open if they don’t feel they can meet safety measures. The Roman Catholic and Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod congregations had announced they planned to defy Walz’s previous order.
The battle over in-person services continued in California. A split 9th Circuit Court of Appeals panel upheld California Gov. Gavin Newsom’s ban on in-person services. He vowed to provide plans Monday for how religious institutions can reopen. Many in California had already announced they would violate the state order and hold in-person services next Sunday, on Pentecost.
Associated Press Writers Dave Kolpack, Fargo, North Dakota; Chris Weber in Los Angeles and Mariam Fam in Winter Park, Florida, contributed to this report.