Catholic and Lutheran leaders hope it will not come to litigation against the state of Minnesota but remain steadfast in their plans to gather in greater numbers in houses of worship.
Regional church officials are calling on the governor to resume religious services as businesses gradually reopen and the stay-at-home order was lifted by Gov. Tim Walz amid the coronavirus pandemic.
“The desire and the need to be in church is great. For us to gather together is an incredibly important thing for spiritual reasons and for social and emotional reasons that we are called to be together,” said the Rev. Steve Benson, pastor of Zion Lutheran Church, of his Brainerd congregation.
Catholic and Missouri Synod Lutheran leaders in the state announced plans to reopen churches for in-person services effective Tuesday, May 26, which may put them at odds with a 10-person cap on church attendance implemented by Walz at the onset of the coronavirus pandemic.
“We are currently in the thinking process, trying to decide exactly what the best direction for us as a congregation would be,” Benson said. “And so we definitely as a congregation are looking into what that means for us.”
The Catholic and Missouri Synod Lutheran churches pledged to have services at one-third of their normal capacity and implement strict new social distancing and sanitary practices even as churches like Zion Lutheran Church have had to find new ways to connect with members.
“During this time we have done a number of online worship services, both on Facebook and YouTube. We have done four different Bible studies online via Zoom, both for our youth group and for our adults. And I have been doing a daily Bible story reading for kids,” Benson said. “And so we’re doing whatever is available to us within (safety) guidelines.”
The Rev. James Bissonette, diocesan administrator of the Diocese of Duluth, in an emailed statement Thursday said Catholic churches had voluntarily lifted the obligation to attend Sunday Mass and suspended the celebration of Masses publicly.
“We have cooperated with the governor and his administration. … With the strict protocols we have put in place, we believe we can begin public Masses again safely, in a limited way,” Bissonette stated.
The Minnesota Catholic Conference, the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, and the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty sent a letter to Walz announcing their intention to open their churches next week.
“It is unfortunate that this step was necessary. … I am disappointed that despite our best efforts to work with the governor, we remain under severe restrictions for an indefinite period of time. This does not seem right,” Bissonette stated.
Leading up to March 18, which was Zion Lutheran Church’s first service it did not offer, the church was averaging about 160 people in attendance with its three weekly worship services — two Sunday morning services and a Monday evening service — according to Benson.
Benson said of possibly violating the state’s 10-person socializing cap, “I do believe we have a right to freedom of religion. And that if we decided that is what we want to do — what we believe is the best thing for our people and for our community — that we would go ahead and do that.”
Catholic leaders plan to meet with Walz and state health officials to discuss additional safe reopening strategies this week, according to Walz spokesperson Teddy Tschann.
“People are wanting to celebrate baptisms, weddings and funerals. … We are simply asking that we be allowed at least the same opportunities for gathering to exercise our religious beliefs as businesses around us have to conduct commerce,” Bissonette stated.
Rep. Ron Kresha, a Little Falls Republican, stated in a news release he fully supported the decision of the churches to open while taking the same safety precautions required of businesses currently allowed to operate.
Kresha stated he has heard from “countless constituents about the unfair treatment of churches in the latest round of guidelines from the governor.”
Eric Rassbach, vice president and senior counsel at the Washington, D.C.-based Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, said church leaders hope to settle their dispute without filing a lawsuit, although his law firm is willing to sue on their behalf if need be.
“They’re saying we’re authorizing you (churches) to reopen only at 33% capacity, which is lower than the level for malls … and also using strict protocols, which include things like only using every third pew, spacing households at least 6 feet apart,” Rassbach said in a phone interview.
Kresha’s release stated, “Allowing 50 people on a restaurant patio and only 10 in an outdoor church service makes no sense, especially when churches are planning to operate at reduced capacity, with rigorous social distancing and hygiene requirements.”
The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty is a nonprofit with the stated mission “to protect the free expression of all faiths,” according to its website, and one of two firms backing the Missouri Synod in Minnesota and the Minnesota Catholic Conference.
“We think it’s illegal for the governor to say you can have malls, tattoo parlors … and things like that open, but religious worship services, which after all is a core First Amendment activity, would be capped at 10 people for an indefinite period of time,” Rassbach said.
Benson said, “When God created Adam and Eve, when he only created Adam first, he said it’s not good that he should be alone, and so we do need to be together — both in worship for the sake of worshiping God and for the sake of supporting each other.”