It’s Time To Prioritize Safe Church Re-Openings

Pastors, please sign on to the following letter to Gov. Andrew Cuomo regarding church re-opening.

Dear Gov. Cuomo:

We, the undersigned, are pastors of New York churches. We write to urge you to prioritize the safe re-opening of churches for in-person worship services as part of your New York Forward plan.

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, you placed New York on PAUSE. On March 23, 2020, you 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 your 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 our congregants, and out of care and concern for the health of our neighbors. Nevertheless, we strenuously disagree with the assertion that worship services are anything other than “essential.” All New Yorkers, and 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.

According to First Liberty Institute (FLI), a state “may not substantially burden the free exercise of religion unless it has a compelling reason for doing so, and [must] use the least burdensome approach that achieves that compelling interest.” Quelling a pandemic is certainly a compelling reason for taking temporary action to limit in-person gatherings; however, the Constitution does not permit states to place restrictions on churches or other houses of worship that it does not place upon other types of businesses or gatherings. In light of these constitutional principles, we have the following questions:

  • If it is safe to hold a press conference at which attendees practice social distancing, why is it not safe to hold a church service at which congregants practice social distancing?
  • If it is safe to allow grocery stores and liquor stores to remain open so long as social distancing is practiced and masks and gloves are worn, why is it deemed unsafe for churches to do the same?
  • As New York City Councilmember Rev. Ruben Diaz Sr. has pointed out, some New York City church buildings have been used as COVID-19 testing sites. If it is safe to use those church buildings as testing sites, might it also be safe for worship services to be held in those same buildings?

Compliance with your 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 you unveiled your New York Forward plan for the phased re-opening of the state, religious services were not mentioned in any of the four phases you identified. This omission has created confusion and frustration. Initially, drastic measures were necessary to combat COVID-19; in some areas of the state, however, an across-the-board ban on worship services is no longer necessary or justifiable. As of May 14, 2020, 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. We believe that 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 your 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.

Please know that you are in our prayers as you make difficult decisions during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Thank you for your consideration.