Minn. allows all churches to reopen after Catholics, Lutherans threaten to defy orders

Cathedral of St. Paul in St. Paul, Minnesota, on July 14, 2016.
Cathedral of St. Paul in St. Paul, Minnesota, on July 14, 2016. | Stephen Maturen/Getty Images

Days after Minnesota’s Catholic and Lutheran churches publicly declared they would defy Gov. Tim Walz’s order restricting in-person services to not more than 10 people, the state has announced it's lifting that limitation to let larger groups gather for worship beginning Wednesday.

At a press briefing Saturday, Gov. Walz announced that churches will be able to hold services starting Wednesday if they follow social distancing guidelines and limit the gatherings to not more than 25% of a building’s capacity, MinnPost reported

The governor has recognized that churches can reopen safely and carefully in the same way as malls and other business operations, the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which along with Sidley Austin LLP had written to Waltz about his pervious order violating the First Amendment, said in a statement Saturday.

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Last Wednesday, The Minnesota Catholic Conference and The Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod had also sent separate letters to the governor saying they would defy the reopening order.

“We were disappointed to find that instead, you allowed retail and other non-critical businesses to open, setting a plan in place for bars and restaurants to reopen while limiting churches to meetings of [10] people or fewer,” the Lutheran body wrote in the letter. “In the absence of a timeline or any other assurances that churches will soon be able to reopen, we find that we must move forward with our religious exercise in a safe manner.”

After the governor’s change of mind following a meeting with church leaders, Archbishop Bernard Hebda of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Saint Paul and Minneapolis expressed gratitude.

“We are grateful that Governor Walz entered into respectful dialogue with us, recognized the spiritual needs of our faithful, and agreed that it is possible to resume worship services safely and responsibly,” Hebda said. “Hopefully, our experience of constructive dialogue can serve as a roadmap for churches across the country suffering from similar inequities, whether intended or unintended, in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.”

The Rev. Dr. Lucas Woodford, president of the Minnesota South District of The Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod, said the ability to meet “responsibly in person to worship God and support one another is invaluable to our community of faith.”

He continued: “We cherish the church’s stewardship of the gospel and sacraments that enables Christians to live out their daily vocations as citizens contributing to the public good and serving their neighbors in love. We are grateful that Minnesota decided to reopen churches, without needing to resort to legal action. We will remain prayerful and watchful, so that this agreement is just the beginning of a return to full, safe and responsible, in-person worship.”

On Friday, President Trump spoke to the Center for Disease Control about releasing guidance for reopening houses of worship as essential operations.

At a press conference, Trump said, “At my direction, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is issuing guidance for communities of faith. I’m identifying houses of worship ⁠— churches, synagogues and mosques ⁠— as essential places that provide essential services.”

Trump also said he plans to “override” governors who are not allowing churches to reopen. “Some governors have deemed liquor stores and abortion clinics as essential, but have left out churches and other houses of worship ⁠— that’s not right. So I’m correcting this injustice and calling houses of worship essential.”

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