Home June 2020 Despite legal confusion, churches inch toward reopening

Despite legal confusion, churches inch toward reopening

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By JOHN FORTMEYER, CNNW publisher

Depending on many factors, the speed with which churches in Oregon, Washington and nationally will reopen appears to vary widely.

But whether very slowly or more quickly, the reopenings from the coronavirus shutdown are eventually coming.

Among several influencing factors are:

•Whether President Trump, who on May 22 declared houses of worship “essential” and said churches nationally should reopen immediately, is indeed found authorized to issue such an order. Trump claimed he can “overrule” state governors who are reluctant to reopen churches yet.

•What is ultimately decided in a legal battle between Oregon Gov. Kate Brown and those Christians deeply concerned that religious freedoms are under attack;

•How soon each state’s leaders feel comfortable authorizing continued loosening of restrictions based on the degree COVID-19 cases diminish in each county;

•The size of each individual church building and whether under state requirements congregations can break into smaller groups that meet simultaneously or whether multiple services would be required;

•Each congregation’s own level of interest in physically getting back together soon or whether they are content for now to continue online or drive-up services.

At this writing, Brown’s stay-at-home orders were still in effect despite legal challenges.  Those orders allow gatherings of no more than 25 people, but under stringent rules on social distancing and sanitizing.

In Washington, as this issue of CNNW was finalized,  Jorge Ramos, Seattle-based lawyer for the California-based legal rights agency Pacific Justice Institute, said Gov. Jay Inslee was considering allowing outdoor church services of up to 50 people or indoor services of up to 25 people in Phase 2 of Inslee’s four-stage reopening plan. Currently, Phase 2 currently allows social or spiritual gatherings of no more than five people.

Pacific Justice Institute also has spearheaded efforts in the court system on behalf of some churches throughout Oregon. The agency on May 7 sued Brown, seeking to invalidate her coronovarius-related executive orders on constitutional procedural grounds. Churches named as parties in the suit are in Baker City, Bend, Camas Valley, Klamath Falls, Lincoln City, Newberg, Portland, Roseburg and Salem.

“There’s a rising tide of churches and churchgoers wanting to push back against Gov. Brown’s oppressive executive orders,” said Ray Hacke of Salem, Pacific Justice Institute’s Oregon-based attorney. “This case will hopefully remind her that she is not free to dispense with constitutionally protected liberties, even in emergencies.”

In response, Baker County Circuit Judge Matthew Shirtcliff ruled May 18 that Brown’s orders exceeded a 28-day limit adopted by state lawmakers and were no longer valid.

But Brown appealed, and within seven hours, the Oregon Supreme Court issued a stay on Shirtcliff’s decision.  That hold will remain in effect to give the high court time to consider the state’s full petition to dismiss Shirtcliff’s preliminary injunction.

How soon churches in the West Coast states of Oregon, Washington and California can reopen and under what criteria has been the focus of several online video discussions in recent weeks sponsored by Pacific Justice Institute. There also have been separate video discussions sponsored in Oregon by the state’s health agency and with input by representatives of Brown’s office.  Hundreds of clergy have participated in the online events, seeking clarity on a wide range of questions and concerns over what is currently allowable and what will be OK as worship centers reopen.

Religious freedom advocates not only in the Northwest, but across the nation, have expressed deep concern that many states have exceeded their constitutional authority in prohibiting church gatherings.

“Churches have not been able to do what God has called them to do … What’s taking place has been atrocious for religious freedom,” Brad Dacus, Pacific Justice Institute president, said in a video event.

“How can Lowe’s and Home Depot, not to mention liquor stores and pot shops, be deemed ‘essential’ by Gov. Kate Brown during this COVID-19 pandemic, but churches are not?” said Stephen Williams of Bend-based ministry Prepare the Way, which joined the lawsuit against Brown. “During this time, when fear, isolation and hopelessness are so prevalent, churches have an essential message of hope, healing and restoration, and pastors should be given the responsibility to decide how to safely gather.”

Concern that churches were getting short shrift in Oregon’s overall response to COVID-19  was a main motivator behind a large worship gathering held outside the Oregon State Capitol building Sunday morning, May 17.  Sponsored by Salem House of Prayer, Pray Oregon and KSLM radio of Salem, the event drew an estimated 800 to 1,000 people.

The gathering was emceed by former state Rep. Jeff Kropf, who said it had two purposes.  One was to pray for God’s intervention for the people of Oregon; he noted that 400,000 of the state’s residents have lost their jobs during the pandemic.

The other purpose, Kropf said, was “making a statement, to show that we can safely worship together, just as safely as we can go to a grocery store or hardware store.”

Jim Moore, director of Salem House of Prayer, said the nation is now “in peril” from leaders who do not acknowledge the historic spiritual underpinnings of America and how important collective worship is to the nation’s vitality. For that reason, Christians must speak out, he said.

“God give us grace to stand up as Jesus would stand up,” Moore said in a prayer before the crowd.

The event organizers also circulated among attenders a petition to the governor, asking that she declare houses of worship to be essential and that she also acknowledge a constitutional right to worship and peaceful assembly.

“I’m astonished that churches were not deemed essential,” Kropf said.

A very first step for Oregon in reopening churches got media attention when the Catholic Archdiocese of Oregon authorized any interested parishes to resume in-person services on Sunday, May 10.  Archbishop Alexander Sample emphasized only up to 25 attenders were allowed, and state regulations on sanitizing and social distancing were to be carefully followed.

In southwest Washington, a very small number of churches — perhaps no more than 2 percent of those in Clark County — have already reopened despite the current tight restrictions, said Dennis Fuqua of Clark County Prayer Connect.

“It depends a lot on the size of the congregation,” Fuqua said. “Smaller ones can open much easier than larger congregations.”

He noted that an online petition asking Inslee to modify Phases 2 and 3 to treat churches the same as restaurants and movie theaters, has already garnered almost 5,000 signatures of faith leaders statewide.

Specifically, it calls for spiritual gatherings  to be re-opened in Phase 2 at 25 percent of facility capacity, and 50 percent in Phase 3.

The petition was written up by Andrew Murch, pastor of Northwest Gospel Church in Vancouver.  It can be seen at wafaithgatherings.com

Also, by late May there was a movement on the West Coast to see thousands of churches reopen  Pentecost Sunday, May 31, regardless of  the states’ current restrictions.

The movement began with Jack Hibbs, pastor of Calvary Chapel in Chino Hills, Calif., and has been promoted by Church Uni-ted, a group representing 2.5 million church members across California.

Hibbs and other leaders in the movement say the church needs to be declared an essential part of American life, and they charge that California Gov. Gavin Newsom has overstepped his authority in prohibiting churches to be open. Newsom has placed churches in Stage 3 of his state’s reopening plan, which could be weeks or months from now.

Some Northwest pastors have caught wind of the May 31 reopening planned by many California churches, prompting discussion on whether they should do the same. But at least one Oregon pastor expressed his opposition to the idea. Rich Jones, pastor of Calvary Chapel Worship Center in Hillsboro, sent a letter to fellow pastors in Washington County, explaining why his church would not open on May 31.  He termed it “a question of Christian witness to our community.”

“Many pastors relate that there is a revival happening due to the coronavirus crisis,” Jones wrote. “Google searches for Christian answers are way up, Bible purchases have dramatically increased, churches arre seeing online attendance at record levels. People are coming to faith by the tens of thousands.  Our witness to the community is mission-critical.”

Opening churches fully before states allow it could threaten this spiritual advancement, Jones stated.

“If churches begin to open their doors and gather in ‘civil disobedience’ to the governor’s order and any of these meetings become ‘super spreading events,’ in other words, many people become infected with the virus, then the name of the Lord will be defamed as the world will see the church as the cause of many unnecessary deaths,” Jones wrote. “As a result, churches will be disrespected and the name of the Lord dishonored.”

Dacus urged churches that planned to open May 31, but who anticipated they might face legal action because of it, to contact Pacific Justice Institute ahead of time to arrange for an attorney-client agreement.

Dacus noted that his agency only charges $1 for legal reasons, and wants to be able to respond immediately on behalf of churches.

“Things are getting very intense across the country,” Dacus said. He added, in a warning to the hundreds of pastors on the video call, that “there’s a chance that some of you may end up in criminal court.”