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In calling on governors Friday to allow houses of worship to reopen starting this weekend, President Trump publicly recognized a fact that has been true since the founding of our nation: in America, houses of worship are essential.
“In America we need more prayer, not less,” President Trump said in a brief appearance before reporters at the White House.
“Some governors have deemed the liquor stores and abortion clinics as essential,” the president said. “But have left out churches and other houses of worship. It’s not right. So I’m correcting this injustice and calling houses of worship essential.”
I thank the president for working with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to add houses of worship to its list of essential institutions and for calling on state governors to allow them to open their doors.
I hope governors do as the president asked and understand that people of faith do not meet at churches and other religious centers to simply fill a building. We do so because it’s an integral part of what our faith teaches about how we should live.
For example, as a Christian, I believe Jesus’ words: “For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.” (Matthew 18:20 NIV)
Thanks to technology, places of worship have been able to find creative ways to meet virtually during the COVID-19 pandemic. Many gather via Zoom or stream their services on YouTube and social media platforms.
Some congregations – including the church I pastor in northern California – are even organizing drive-in services so people can worship in their cars.
But the time has come to begin reopening our places of worship.
As a resident of California, I commend Gov. Gavin Newsom and our state and local elected officials for their efforts to keep Californians safe. But as these leaders begin rolling out plans to reopen our states, I want to respectfully encourage and assure them that restrictions on places of worship can be lifted safely.
Our churches and other religious centers can resume operations following a plan like the one our organization, the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, created that calls for four phases of reopening for houses of worship:
Phase 1 – First two weeks
Return to holding services, with churches and other places of worship limited to 25 percent of their seating capacity. This will allow for the maintenance of social distancing, increased sanitizing methods and controlled screening to prevent transmission.
Houses of worship should also take advantage of drive-in services if their locations allow for it. People can remain in their vehicles with their windows closed and listen to the message via the radio. Online services can and should continue.
Phase 2 – Third and fourth weeks
Return to filling houses of worship at 50 percent capacity, with continued social distancing, face coverings and sanitization. Drive-in and online services can and should continue.
Phase 3 – Fifth and sixth weeks
During the fifth and sixth weeks of reopening – or whenever the amount of new COVID-19 cases in the state has plateaued or decreased and reliable therapeutic and treatment options for the coronavirus exist – religious facilities can operate at 75 percent capacity. Services can continue to be broadcast via television or radio or streamed online for those who are homebound or at greater risk of catching the virus. This phase may last several weeks or months.
Phase 4 – Date undetermined
Once the CDC no longer deems COVID-19 a public health threat and there are effective treatments and/or a vaccine available, religious facilities will resume normal operations at 100 percent capacity.
Of course, each church and other religious center will need to formulate its own plan depending on where they are located, in order to meet their community’s specific needs and concerns. But adopting a cautious, phased and flexible plan should help places of worship resume services in a responsible and ethical manner.
I am so grateful I live in a nation where people are allowed to freely exercise their faith or lack thereof. Our Bill of Rights was created expressly to protect that freedom, among many others.
Gathering with others for a religious or spiritual service during a time of crisis brings comfort to many and strengthens not only individuals, but whole communities as those individuals go out to encourage and minister to others.
Religious services are going to look very different in the coming days, weeks, months and even years. As I have preached to my congregation before: we are not returning to normal, we are experiencing a complete reset to the most basic way of living out our faith.
The faith communities in this country have the unique opportunity to set the tone for reopening our nation. There should be no contradiction between honoring the authorities who have been placed over us and holding fast to the tenets of our faith by taking a safe and measured approach to meeting together.
Our faith should make us better citizens who are a blessing to our communities and the nation where we live.