Updates to all three COVID-19 orders from Wyoming’s department of health were issued this week. They represent the first time since the beginning of the crisis that restrictions were eased. From the issuance of the first order on March 19, through the continuation of all three on Friday, May 1, houses of worship have never been mentioned.
This omission is no accident. Governor Mark Gordon has been pressured both specifically to restrict churches as well as specifically to exempt them. Clearly, the governor does not want to do either.
However, on Tuesday April 28, a direct question from Jim O’Reilly of Bigfoot 99 radio forced the issue. Even then, rather than address the question himself, Gordon deferred to Dr. Alexia Harrist, the state health officer.
“You have all seen the orders, that there is nothing specifically addressing churches or other places of worship — although certainly order number two, which limits gatherings to less than 10, does apply to all types of situations, including religious gatherings,” Harrist said. “It is still a concern, having large numbers of people together in one place. Having close contact with each other is, unfortunately, a very good way to spread this virus. And so, we need to be extremely cautious before taking steps to do that.”
Immediately, the governor followed up by commending the responsible way that religious leaders around the state have acted. He continued, “We started this order with the expectation that people in Wyoming would take responsibility for their actions. We didn’t have to issue a ‘shelter-in-place.’ And we continue to convey that same sense of responsibility to our faith leaders to make sure that they don’t put their congregations in any kind of peril.”
Then, once again, he reminded the assembly that “we did not separate out anything specifically with churches.”
This exchange was troubling for many people of faith around the state. Some wanted him to say more, others thought he said too much. When these concerns were conveyed to the governor, he arranged a Friday teleconference with pastors around the state. He gave some opening remarks and allowed ample time for clarifying questions. The discussion helped us to appreciate the extremely fine line that he is walking.
The specter of death hovers before us. Emotions are raw and the long-term stakes to America’s economy and Constitution are extremely high. In this atmosphere, the governor must not only protect the citizens of Wyoming but be perceived as protecting them. This is played out on a stage where there are wildly different opinions about what this should look like.
Meanwhile, U.S. Attorney General Bill Barr, recently directed U. S. attorneys around the country to “be on the lookout” for coronavirus orders that violate the Constitution. The U.S. Department of Justice has filed a statement of interest in just such a case regarding a church in Mississippi. Barr is reminding governors that the Constitution is not suspended during a time of crisis.
The First Amendment, in particular, has guided Governor Gordon away from issuing any direct orders to churches. Dr. Harrist, speaking as an epidemiologist, can advise churches to find alternatives to in-person worship services, but as an officer of the state, she lacks constitutional authority to go beyond that. This explains why Governor Gordon put such stress on personal responsibility.
I believe his emphasis is well-placed. Every pastor I know feels as protective of his congregation as he does of his own family. Not one of them would willingly imperil a single soul. This concern naturally leads them to inform themselves on physical precautions — especially for their most vulnerable members. Anyone who would accuse a church or a pastor of being loveless or careless is fanning flames of hate without any basis in fact.
As a leader of the Wyoming Pastors Network, I can assure the governor that his confidence is well-placed. Churches share his deep concern for the well-being of every Wyoming citizen.
Religious leaders are also eager to honor and respect authority. They believe that God Himself has placed people in government in order to inform and strengthen our communities for life together. People like Dr. Harrist, and everyone who is helping Wyoming to move forward responsibly, are gifts from God. They and their wisdom are received with thanksgiving.
From that foundation of respect and love, the churches of Wyoming are in a unique position to help lead Wyoming through the process of reopening. The first thing to notice about churches — as about all our communities — is that one size does not fit all.
Religious gatherings are not uniform — far from it. In the movies, worship is depicted as uniform congregants packed in pews shoulder-to-shoulder. Occasionally this is true, but more often there are a few dozen people sitting in a sanctuary that could seat 10 times more.
With the goal of preventing “large numbers of people together in one place, having close contact with each other,” most of Wyoming’s churches can comply without breaking a sweat. Others can implement CDC guidelines with less draconian adjustments than the cancelation of in-person services.
Governor Gordon has no interest in preventing churches from establishing protocols that follow CDC guidance. He recognizes the necessity of a wide range of services for the physical and spiritual well-being of Wyomingites. For this reason, he has given protocols designed to help them serve people while remaining as safe as possible. These can guide churches as well.
In all these cases, the 10-person gathering limit is waived due to building size. Big box stores and small mom-and-pop stores remain able to serve the public by being mindful of the ratio of people present to the available floor space.
Arbitrary numbers are best translated into some fraction of maximum occupancy. Since every public building already has a maximum occupancy dictated by fire code and posted on the premises, this can serve as an objective guide.
Wyoming’s way forward might be facilitated by guiding the proprietors of any establishment to limit occupancy to some percentage of that number. Such guidance can be easily understood and uniformly applied by changing the percentages as we move through the different phases of reopening.
It is not only religious leaders who care about the community. Every business owner and manager does as well. The most important step that Wyoming can take in the work of reopening is to extend to one another the courtesy of mutual respect.
Religious leaders have a vital role in this regard. As Wyoming opens up for business, there will be thousands of discretionary details that will fall to individual citizens, businesses and churches. In every case, there will be differences in how those decisions are made. The temptation is to condemn those who come to a difference decision. Churches can warn against this temptation.
Some will find protocols that enable them to follow CDC guidance while quickly re-establishing worship. Others will keep congregants out of their buildings for a while longer. Each has a unique situation and a different set of concerns. Either way, we can all treat one another with respect and charity.
Jonathan Lange is an LCMS pastor in Evanston and Kemmerer and serves the Wyoming Pastors Network. He can be reached at [email protected] Follow his blog at OnlyHuman-JL.blogspot.com.