The COVID-19 pandemic has caused immense suffering and death in New York, especially in New York City and its environs. To protect the public, and to avert even greater suffering, Gov. Andrew Cuomo placed New York on PAUSE. On March 23, 2020, the Governor issued Executive Order No. 10, which directed that all non-essential gatherings be cancelled or postponed until April 22, 2020. The ban on non-essential gatherings has since been extended to June 6, 2020. A state guidance document added that worship services were considered to be non-essential gatherings.
Since Gov. Cuomo’s March 23 Order was issued, the overwhelming majority of New York churches temporarily suspended in-person worship services. The churches represented by the undersigned pastors took this step out of respect for the governing authorities (Romans 13:1), out of care and concern for the health of their congregants, and out of care and concern for the health of their neighbors. Nevertheless, all Americans have a God-given right—recognized in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution—to the free exercise of religion. Christians also have a responsibility to meet with other believers regularly (Hebrews 10:24-25). While we respect the authority of government, we must ultimately answer to a much higher authority.
Compliance with the Governor’s March 23 Order has taken a toll on churches, pastors, and Christian believers. Some churches and pastors have adapted to the situation by holding online worship services, but churches whose staffs or congregants lack internet access have struggled to stay connected. While physical health is very important, mental health and spiritual health are very important as well. For a Christian, remaining isolated from one’s faith community is not a desirable or sustainable situation.
When Gov. Cuomo unveiled his New York Forward plan for the phased re-opening of the state, religious services were not mentioned in any of the four phases he identified. This omission has created confusion and frustration. Initially, drastic measures were necessary to combat COVID-19; in some areas of the state, as of May 14, 2020, however, 21 of New York’s 62 counties have had fewer than 100 documented COVID-19 cases. Furthermore, 27 counties have had fewer than 10 documented COVID-19 deaths. A ban on worship services in those counties is no longer needed to protect the public from COVID-19. With respect to counties that have been hit harder by COVID-19, we believe that churches and other houses of worship should re-open no later than Phase Two of the Governor’s four-phase plan. If it is safe to re-open retail establishments in a given region, it is safe to re-open churches in that region as well.
New Yorkers for Constitutional Freedoms has prepared a letter from New York pastors to Gov. Cuomo urging him to prioritize the safe re-opening of churches. If you are a church pastor in New York, please sign on to the letter. Again, this link is provided for pastors ONLY.