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More sheriffs plan to stand down and allow indoor religious services

Johnston County Sheriff Steve Bizzell said his deputies won't "interfere or prevent churchgoers to peaceably assemble and exercise their constitutional right to freely worship."

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Matthew Burns, Sr. multiplatform producer, Julian Grace, WRAL anchor/reporter
Leslie Moreno, WRAL multimedia journalist
SMITHFIELD, N.C. — Johnston County Sheriff Steve Bizzell said his deputies won't "interfere or prevent churchgoers to peaceably assemble and exercise their constitutional right to freely worship."

The North Carolina Sheriff's Association along with many other sheriffs departments are siding with those who want indoor services.

Father Peter of Saint Ann Catholic Church said, "People are stressed and they need the churches. They need this encouragement."

The state plan to resume business and social activities during the pandemic suggests that churches hold outdoor worship services or limit services to 10 people at an indoor service for now, but law enforcement officials, ministers and others have been pushing back against that restriction in recent days, noting retailers can have dozens and sometimes hundreds of people inside their stores.

An updated document shared with the sheriff's association includes this caveat: “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."

Public heath experts say there is evidence that stationary activities indoors have a higher likelihood of spreading coronavirus.

At Saint Ann, they've been holding outdoor Mass. But Father Peter believes it should be up to a church's discretion to decide what to do moving forward. "I really think churches can regulate just as regular businesses can regulate the safety of its people," he added.

"The thought of arresting someone for going to church is not an action that I will be taking," said Nash County Sheriff Keith Stone.

Within hours of Bizzell declaring that his office wouldn't stop churches from holding indoor services in violation of the statewide stay-at-home order, Rev. Steve Grice, pastor of New Life Baptist Church in Smithfield, said his congregation will worship indoors on Sunday.

“If 400 people can meet at Lowe’s then the few of us can meet at church Sunday morning," Grice said. "We have plenty of room to practice social distancing.”

Grice says the church has been meeting for the past couple of weeks at the church for parking lot services.

Ronnie Fields, sheriff of Moore County, issued a statement Friday on churches, saying, that "we need God in our lives now more than ever."

"Neither I, nor any member of the Moore County Sheriff's Office will interfere with or attempt to disrupt any worship service in this county," he said.

Conservative activist group Return America filed a Thursday to pressure Gov. Roy Cooper into allowing churches across North Carolina hold services indoors during the coronavirus pandemic.

"We are not asking for special favors, but a minimum of free exercise of our religious liberties. In our churches, we will provide sanitary conditions even beyond the recommendations of the CDC," Return America said in a news release.

Late Wednesday, Halifax County Sheriff Wes Tripp joined Bizzell and Stone in saying that he won't cite any churches that violate the statewide stay-at-home order and hold indoor services this Sunday with more than 10 people. Craven County Sheriff Chip Hughes also said he would not enforce the order in his county.


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