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Christian leaders rally in Raleigh demanding reopening of churches

Posted May 14, 2020 5:01 a.m. EDT
Updated May 15, 2020 11:47 a.m. EDT

— Churchgoers from across the state gathered in downtown Raleigh Thursday to rally against Gov. Roy Cooper's stay-at-home order and demand the right to hold services inside their buildings.

The group leading the charge, Return America, is led by pastors and Christian educators. During the rally, the group announced that they had filed a lawsuit against Cooper over not allowing indoor assemblies at churches.

Berean Baptist Church, Pastor of the church and Return America President Ronnie Baity and People's Baptist Church filed the federal lawsuit to block enforcement of rules covering religious services. Those filing the suit say the state's restrictions violate the First Amendment and treat churches differently from retailers.

Under the first part of a three-phase plan to resume business and social activities in the state during the pandemic, there is no limit to the number of people who can attend an outdoor worship or wedding service. But an indoor gathering is still limited to 10 people or fewer.

The state order says, "nothing prevents an indoor worship service from being shifted to multiple services over periods of time or held in different rooms to meet the requirements of the Phase One Order."

While this document does not amend Executive Order No. 138, it does provide new important clarifications, to include:

“In situations where it is not possible to conduct worship services outdoors or through other accommodations - such as through, for example, a series of indoor services of ten or fewer attendees, or through online services - the ten-person attendance limit on indoor worship services does not apply."

Under the second phase of the plan, churches would be allowed to hold indoor gatherings again but at a limited capacity. That comes start as soon as May 22 if data show continued flattening of the curve of coronavirus cases and hospitalizations.

Cooper said in a press conference that "we don't want our churches to become hotspots for the virus."

The plan to reopen the state gradually is in place for state residents' protection, Cooper said.

“When people are gathered together indoor the virus has a significant chance to spread from one person to the next," he said. "We’ve seen tragic consequences when that’s the case. We hope congregations all across NC will make good decisions about what is right to look after each other.”

But, the suit is concerning that churches goers "first amendment rights have been squandered," according to Baity.

The legal team involved with the lawsuit is from the Christian Law Association, and the lawyer involved with the suit is also a Baptist pastor, David Gibbs Jr.

"We have the ability to open our churches safely, with higher standards than they are asking us to do," Gibbs said.

Thursday evening, Jennifer Copeland, Ph.D, executive director of NC Council of Churches, issued a statement in support of Cooper's plan for churches.

"In light of recent protests and rallies from some pastors and politicians in North Carolina calling for reopening our places of worship, the North Carolina Council of Churches states unequivocally that we do not believe now is the time for congregations to return to their sanctuaries.

"This not a political issue. It is a theological issue. Right now, we love our neighbors best by keeping our distance from them. The ability of people of faith to praise God and nurture their faith is not limited to sitting together in a sanctuary. To claim this “right” is only to betray the political motivations behind the rally.

"When asymptomatic carriers of the coronavirus spend a lengthy period of time in one place, they will infect those around them. This is how worship works. We stay near each other for an hour or more. If the asymptomatic person goes around hugging people, the setting is even more dangerous because time exposure is compounded by close proximity.

"Many reputable scientists from leading research institutions have written and spoken about how this virus spreads. It spreads when time and proximity line up. Breathing the same air as a carrier for a lengthy period, like a worship service, is dangerous. Breathing the same air as a carrier for the time it takes to walk past this person in a retail establishment is not as dangerous. It’s basic math: time + proximity = contagion.

"Congregations should not congregate. We’ve mastered the technology to broadcast our worship services through an array of channels. We’ve created the care systems to support one another spiritually. We’ve developed educational opportunities to deepen our faith.

During the rally, none of those who spoke were wearing masks, and most of the crowd was standing shoulder to shoulder, even though a Facebook post from Return America on Wednesday encouraged participants to wear masks and practice social distancing.

"Because that building is there, that's where we baptize. That's where we serve communion," Gibbs said. "That's where we hold Christian funerals of celebration ... and for them to say that's not essential, it may not be essential to some, but I promise you it's essential to me."

Cooper's executive order makes an exception for funeral services and allows them to be held with up to 50 people.

"We are asking the court to give instruction to the governor to immediately open these churches," Gibbs said.

Eight Republican state House members attended the rally:

  • Rep. Jerry Carter, R-Rockingham, who also is a Baptist minister
  • Rep. Steve Jarvis, R-Davidson
  • Rep. Keith Kidwell, R-Beaufort
  • Rep. Jeff McNeely, R-Iredell
  • Rep. Larry Pittman, R-Cabarrus, who also is a pastor of Ridgecrest Baptist Church and bragged that his church had never closed
  • Rep. Larry Potts, R-Davidson
  • Rep. Phil Shepard, R-Onslow, who also is pastor of Lighthouse Baptist Church

Johnston County Sheriff Steve Bizzell is among a dozen North Carolina sheriffs who signed a May 8 resolution asking the governor to allow citizens to gather in churches to hold worship services.

The North Carolina Council of Churches, which includes 18 different denominations and 6,200 churches statewide, does not support returning to worship yet.

"We understand the danger of sitting beside an asymptomatic person for an hour or more and until this pandemic is better controlled, the better part of valor is to continue loving our neighbors by keeping our distance from them," a spokesperson from the church said.

The group passed out bookmarks and had merchandise available for purchase. They called themselves a ministry asked for financial support to fight the stay-at-home order.

Gibbs also asked that churchgoers and their children write formal letters to federal legislators asking them to end the stay-at-home order, suggesting that letters could encourage government officials to change their minds.

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