Tue | Jul 14, 2020

New coronavirus limits bring new religious freedom tension

Published:Saturday | April 4, 2020 | 4:50 PM
In this Thursday, March 19, 2020 file photo, Reverend Alvin J. Gwynn Sr., of Friendship Baptist Church in Baltimore, sits for a portrait in his church. Gwynn said that police tried to halt services at his church on Sunday, March 29, 2020, even though he had limited in-person attendance to 10 people. (AP Photo/Steve Ruark)

NEW YORK (AP) — Despite state and local limits on public gatherings, some faith leaders have persisted in holding in-person services, a matter of religious freedom, they say, as the nation approached its fourth Sunday battling the coronavirus pandemic.

The most high-profile clash over in-person worship – and crowd limits designed to stop the virus’ spread - came in Florida, where Pastor Rodney Howard-Browne was arrested Monday for violating a county order by hosting a large number of congregants at his Tampa church.

Howard-Browne said after his release he would move future worship online, but the county later ended its effort to apply limits on large gatherings to religious services after a statewide order described religious gatherings as essential.

Law enforcement officials in Louisiana and Maryland took separate action this week against pastors who continue to hold in-person services in the face of stay-home orders in most states.

But more than a half-dozen of those state orders provide a degree of exemption for religious activity, underscoring the political sensitivity of the decisions being made by states and localities.

Vice President Mike Pence said this week that churches should not host groups bigger than 10 people, and President Donald Trump said that “my biggest disappointment is that churches can’t meet in a time of need.”

But the application of guidance on the ground has raised questions for some faith leaders.

In Florida, attorneys at the Christian legal non-profit representing Howard-Browne tabled their plans to file a federal lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the county order used against him after the county reversed course.

“Instead of using a scalpel to address this, they’re using a chainsaw,” said Liberty Counsel founder Mathew St aver, who added that executive orders designed to limit gatherings during the pandemic were “flying off printers and being signed by government officials with no constitutional readiness.”

On Wednesday, Florida Republican Governor Ron De antis issued a stay-home order describing religious services as essential, followed by a second order that overrides any localities’ conflicting guidelines — an edict that could impede local attempts to shut down future large worship services.

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