Google Play suspends evangelical church's app over COVID-19 'sensitive events' policy

An exterior view of Google's headquarters, also known as Googleplex, in Mountain View, California, US as taken on Apr. 13, 2014.
An exterior view of Google's headquarters, also known as Googleplex, in Mountain View, California, US as taken on Apr. 13, 2014. | Wikimedia Commons/Noah_Loverbear

Google has suspended a mobile app launched by an evangelical church in Idaho, claiming that the app violates the tech giant’s “sensitive events” policy related to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Last Friday, Christ Church of Moscow, Idaho, alerted its followers that Google Play had suspended its “ChristKirk” app from the Play Store. 

Google Play suspended our ChristKirk app today,” a Facebook post reads. 

The post includes a screenshot of the notification Google sent to administrators of the app stating that Google Play prohibits apps that “lack reasonable sensitivity towards” or try to “capitalize on a natural disaster, atrocity, conflict, death, or other tragic event.”

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“We presume they're talking about Pastor Douglas Wilson's short lessons on responding faithfully to the COVID-19 crisis,” the church added in its post. “Or maybe Pastor Toby J. Sumpter's sermon calling God's people to humble repentance. Regardless — What gives, Google?”

According to Google Play’s “sensitive events” policy, examples of violations include apps that are “appearing to profit from a tragic event with no discernible benefit to the victims,” apps that “deny a major tragic event” or apps that lack sensitivity to deaths of people or groups. 

On Tuesday, the church provided an update on Facebook explaining that it had appealed the suspension. 

“We do not believe we were in violation of their rules,” the update reads. “Google Play suspended essentially *all* apps that referred to COVID-19.”

Over the last few weeks, Facebook, Google and other tech giants began using algorithms and new rules to scrub their platforms of coronavirus-related misinformation, The Associated Press reports.  

In early April, Google Play updated the Play Store listing guidelines. 

In an explainer piece, Google Play Business Development Manager Sam Tolomei said that the company is only approving apps that reference COVID-19 in their store listing if the app is “published, commissioned, or authorized by an official government entity or public health organization.” 

Additionally, apps will only be published if they do not “contain any monetization mechanisms.” Such mechanisms include “in-app products or in-app donations.”

“This includes references in places such as the app title, description, release notes, or screenshots,” Tolomei added. 

Other apps that have been removed by Google Play during the COVID-19 pandemic include the website Info Wars. The app was removed in late March after its founder Alex Jones disputed the need for social distancing amid the outbreak, according to WIRED

According to The Washington Examiner, Christ Church received a response to its appeal on Thursday. However, Google restated its belief that the app is in violation of the sensitive events policy. 

The church was told that the app would not be reinstated until all references to COVID-19 were removed.  A screenshot of correspondence with a Google employee published by The Washington Examiner suggests Google asked the church to remove references to COVID-19 in its listing and the in-app experience. 

Pastor Doug Wilson, an outspoken Calvinist, wrote in a blog post that he believes Google is “censoring things on such a massive scale now that no one individual can claim he is being picked on.”

“If they were singling us out, and removed our content because I had said, for example, that this whole thing was a summoning of Americans to repentance, that would have been obnoxious enough,” Wilson wrote. “But if they say that no American using their platform can talk about COVID-19 at all, and they are going to axe your content simply because COVID appears in the title of your video clip, then how is that a much bigger offense?”

“How is this not like T-Mobile saying they are happy to have you as a customer, but they would like you to be aware of the fact that according to their terms of service, if you start talking about the upcoming 2020 election with your friend across the country, your call will be dropped?” he added. 

“A lot of misinformation is flying around during the course of elections, you know. And if they did this by means of an algorithm, affecting tens of thousands of people, it would not be an even-handed lack of censorship, but rather censorship at a staggering level.”

Christ Church Executive Pastor Ben Zornes told The Washington Examiner that the church is evaluating the best way forward. He said the purpose of the app was to provide the congregation with "sermons and a couple podcasts helping our people think biblically about the coronavirus,"

“[W]e believe this is censorship and wrong-headed,” Zornes was quoted as saying. “We are not purporting to present any medical advice or information on the virus, we are simply presenting what we believe Scripture teaches in regards to how to face such crises in faith and love to our neighbor."

Google’s suspension of the Christ Church app drew the ire of conservative evangelical commentator Rod Dreher. Dreher argued in an op-ed that what probably got the app in trouble was a sermon from late March in which Wilson condemned abortion and gay marriage as sins that require repentance. 

“My point is this: whatever my conflicts, theological and otherwise, with Doug Wilson and his circle, I profited from hearing these sermons. I was challenged by them, in a good way,” Dreher wrote. “Did I agree 100 percent with them? No I did not. Do I believe that these sermons ought to be freely available on Google’s platform for people to hear? Absolutely.”

“We don’t know precisely why Google booted Wilson’s church’s app, but listening to Wilson’s sermon, it’s not hard to guess why,” Dreher continued. 

Christ Church, which held a drive-in service on Easter, is part of the Communion of Reformed Evangelical Churches. The CREC is an association of over 100 churches worldwide. 

The network’s leader stated in an April 14 letter that the association may no longer comply with government social distancing orders. 

CREC Presiding Minister of Council, Virgil Hurt, wrote in the letter to governing authorities that it is “now apparent that our initial information was incomplete.

“The pandemic is not what we all thought it was going to be,” Hurt wrote. “It is now clear that the stated rationale for these temporary, emergency actions, ‘to flatten the curve,’ has been achieved, and that these temporary measures are no longer necessary.”

Hurt warned that if society continues with the course of action “things may get much worse.” 

“The citizens of the United States and our congregants are already beginning to strongly feel the need to get back to regular living,” Hurt stressed.

“While we do not currently have a date at which we will no longer comply with the extreme restrictions, we believe the time is now at hand for our leaders to stand down from the extreme isolation efforts, and the date at which we will no longer comply is soon approaching, in days or weeks, not months.”

“While we despise death, we do not fear death, because for us, to live is Christ and to die is gain,” Hurt added. “May God grant us repentance, and as we confess and repent of our many sins, we trust that He will be gracious to us and heal our land.” 

Follow Samuel Smith on Twitter: @IamSamSmith

or Facebook: SamuelSmithCP

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