REGIONAL- Claiming they should be considered equally alongside businesses, Minnesota Catholic and Lutheran leaders notified Gov. Tim Walz on Wednesday that their congregations have been given the …
REGIONAL- Claiming they should be considered equally alongside businesses, Minnesota Catholic and Lutheran leaders notified Gov. Tim Walz on Wednesday that their congregations have been given the green light to resume in-person worship services beginning next week.
“If malls, casinos, liquor stores, bars, and restaurants are reopening, why can’t Minnesota churches?” said Eric Rassbach, vice president and senior counsel at Becket, a Washington, D.C.-based firm specializing in religious liberty for all faiths. “Our Constitution stands for ‘equal justice under law’ and imposing a special disability on churches is anything but.”
Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod District Presidents Donald Fondow and Lucas Woodford, and Catholic Archbishop of St. Paul and Minneapolis Bernard Hebda sent letters Wednesday to Walz informing him that their churches would reopen for services on Tuesday, May 26, operating on strict protocols that would limit attendance to 33 percent capacity and enforce social distancing and hygiene protocols that are consistent with Minnesota Department of Health and CDC guidelines.
Evangelical Lutheran Synod President John Moldstad joined Fondow and Woodford in a letter to their congregations announcing the resumption of services, with the first Sunday services happening on Pentecost, May 31, which celebrates the descent of the Holy Spirit on Christ’s apostles.
“We do not take this step lightly,” Hebda’s letter to Walz said. “We sought all along to engage you and your administration in a proactive way and continue to be willing to do so. Your willingness, at the same time, to allow a ‘click forward’ for other sectors and activities on your dial - many of which cannot be classified as essential as the life of faith, prompts us to consider it necessary to move forward.”
Rassbach noted in a Thursday morning online press conference that detailed reopening proposals had been transmitted to the governor on May 7, but that Walz has never formally responded. Informal contacts with the governor’s staff have been ongoing, he said.
At least 28 states have no restrictions at all on religious worship, Rassbach said. Many states, such as Montana, have lifted restrictions that were once in place.
“There are a lot of examples out there of states that have similar situations to Minnesota that have figured out how to do this,” he said.
Hebda emphasized the need for churches to respond to members in crisis.
“Darkness and despair have taken hold of so many of our fellow Americans in the face of the economic and social hardship of the COVID-19 pandemic,” he said in a Becket press release. “Faith has always been a source of comfort and strength and now more than ever it is of the utmost importance that we are able to meet the spiritual needs of our community.”
Rassbach emphasized that churches were not saying “we will do anything we want,” and would continue to be good citizens while advocating for equal treatment and exercising their First Amendment rights.
Rassbach said the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice has weighed in on a similar situation in California, sending a letter to Gov. Gavin Newsom explaining that under federal law California could not force houses of worship to lag behind other organizations during the reopening process.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if they sent a similar letter to Minnesota officials,” Rassbach said.