New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said this week that churches can begin hosting drive-in worship services as long as they follow “strict social distancing guidelines.” Additionally, houses of worship can hold in-person services as long as they're limited to 10 people or fewer.
Cuomo made the announcement as part of a press briefing in Albany Wednesday, saying that services could resume on Thursday as long as all participants use masks and follow social distancing rules.
The governor also noted that he is working with the state’s Interfaith Advisory Council to consider gradually reopening larger in-person worship. The announcement comes as different regions across the state are hitting the required benchmarks to begin reopening during the coronavirus pandemic.
“I understand their desire to get back to religious ceremonies as soon as possible,” Cuomo, 62, said.
“As a former altar boy, I get it. I think even at this time of stress when people are so anxious and so confused, I think that religious ceremonies can be very comforting. But we need to find out how to do it, and do it safely, and do it smartly. The last thing we want to do is have a religious ceremony that winds up having more people infected.”
Cuomo stressed that “if people are smart” and responsible, that infection rates will slow.
“It is amazing how effective a mask is,” Cuomo added.
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The Rutherford Institute, a civil rights law group, celebrated Cuomo’s announcement, calling it a “victory for common sense.”
“While federal and state governments have adopted specific restrictive measures in an effort to decelerate the spread of the COVID-19 virus, the current public health situation has not resulted in the suspension of fundamental constitutional rights such as religious freedom,” stated Rutherford Institute President John W. Whitehead.
“While there is a moral responsibility to not endanger other lives with our actions, that does not mean relinquishing all of our freedoms. Be responsible, but don’t allow yourselves to be muzzled or your individual freedoms to be undermined.”
The institute is representing a New York congregation that was forced to halt its drive-in worship services after it was threatened with $1,000 fines for holding services even though congregants adhered to social distancing guidelines.
The Central Bible Baptist Church was threatened with fines by the Massena Police Department after Pastor Samson Ryman held drive-in worship on May 3. The service was attended by 23 worshipers in 18 vehicles.
In response, the Rutherford Institute sent a letter to Police Chief Adam J. Love on behalf of the church. The letter argued that drive-in services with more than 10 people are legal.
“You are mistaken in your assertion that church ‘drive-in’ worship services are prohibited under New York’s current emergency orders and could result in fines,” wrote Whitehead in the letter.
“[These fines] are grounded in a misunderstanding of the law and a misapplication of the Governor’s Executive Orders, which severely chills their exercise of the fundamental right to practice their religion.”
In a Facebook post, Central Bible announced that it will return to holding drive-in services this Sunday.
“We have no ill will towards our local officials. We believe them to have been outstanding for their work for our community and we are thankful. We honor and love our officials working day in and out to fight for and protect us,” stated the church.
“Central and their Pastor are Not against them. We’re not rebels. We stand and live by the truth and principles of the Word of God! We are simply trying to have church services, without conflict, safely, legally and peaceably.”