Gaston County churches want to reopen, but conflicting legal advice leaves confusion

Governor Roy Cooper signs two bills bringing over $1.5 billion in emergency funding to North...
Governor Roy Cooper signs two bills bringing over $1.5 billion in emergency funding to North Carolina.(WBTV | WBTV)
Published: May. 9, 2020 at 8:24 AM EDT
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CHARLOTTE, N.C. (Charlotte Observer) - A week after Gaston County leaders urged businesses and churches to reopen despite state coronavirus restrictions, some churches there are clamoring to return to their sanctuaries.

Gov. Roy Cooper this week eased some restrictions on businesses and mass gatherings, effective at 5 p.m. Friday through May 22. His executive order on Phase 1 easing exempts worship services from limits on mass gatherings, but adds that they “shall take place outdoors unless impossible.”

Cooper’s order doesn’t define the term, but county attorney Jonathan Lee Sink offered several ways churches could consider it “impossible” to hold outdoor services, as some already do.

Rain or hot weather could qualify, Sink, a former executive director of the state Republican Party, wrote the all-Republican county commissioners by email Wednesday. Churches might have too little parking space, presumably for the drive-in services some churches are holding. Financial hardship, such as for buying outdoor sound equipment, or health and safety concerns for members might also count.

“Where it is impossible to hold an outdoor church service, church members and attendees may gather inside their church building for worship so long as social distancing standards are in place and people do not have sustained contact with each other,” Sink wrote.

Sink, who didn’t return an Observer call, added that he couldn’t predict what a court might deem “impossible” or advise how law enforcement should treat the issue. Violation of Cooper’s order is a misdemeanor.

The advice heartened churches eager to resume their services. But Cooper’s office says it’s wrong.

“The executive order allows indoor services if there’s no more than ten people. Otherwise, houses of worship may hold services outdoors with more than 10 people if they are socially distanced,” Cooper’s press secretary, Dory McMillan, said by email.

“We know from public health officials that the novel coronavirus is most easily transmitted when groups of people gather in confined spaces in stationary positions for extended periods of time. These rules are in place to protect public health while still allowing people to practice their religion.”

The Rev. Austin Rammell of Venture Church in the Gaston County town of Dallas said the 700 members who regularly attend Sunday services are tired of the online alternative offered in recent weeks. Parking lots encircle the church, making it unsuited to outdoor services, he said.

“There’s a lot of angst among people in the church,” he said Friday. “People who’re not involved in the church don’t always appreciate the perspective of those who are, but they highly value relationships. The worship of Jesus is a community event, and when that’s restricted it creates a burden on their very spirituality. The very word ‘church’ means ‘a gathering.’”

Rammell says it’s unclear what’s legal. Sink’s advice suggests one thing, but Rammell said District Attorney Locke Bell’s office told him his church can’t meet while the restrictions are in place. Bell couldn’t be reached Friday.

Venture Church is preparing social distancing and disinfection protocols for whenever the sanctuary opens, including required masks and temperature checks. But Rammell said it’s increasingly grating to see some stores allowed to operate with few apparent safeguards while churches aren’t.

“The church at this point is starting to look like it’s really singled out,” he said. “The inconsistencies are creating skepticism among people, and they gather at churches. We want to be together with other churches (on reopening), and be united and know in our own conscience that we will do what’s right.”

The Justice Department this week sided with a Virginia church in its challenge to a state shutdown order limiting the size of religious gatherings, claiming it violates constitutional guarantees of free expression, USA Today reported.

Most of the 109 Southern Baptist churches in the Greater Gaston Baptist Association, including Venture, have held online services since the restrictions took effect, said director Thane Kendall. Others opted for the drive-in approach that some pastors call “park and praise.”

Several churches have targeted May 24 for a return to their sanctuaries with social distancing and disinfection practices, Kendall said.

Under Cooper’s plan, Phase 2 of the eased restrictions would begin two to three weeks after Phase 1 begins, or May 22 to May 29. That phase would allow gatherings at places such as churches and entertainment venues at reduced capacity.

About a dozen protesters marched in Gastonia on Saturday to demand that businesses be reopened, as they did in Charlotte last Friday, but Kendall said the churches who hope for early openings aren’t making political statements.

“A lot of what’s being said, they’re concerned about the virus and they want to be careful and cautious,” he said. “I don’t sense that churches want to be deliberately anti-government. They miss meeting together, their unity and the community of it. I don’t see any defiance.”