By FRC's David Closson
Since the onset of the pandemic, churches around the country have had to make tough choices. Although suspending in-person gatherings was not an easy decision, an overwhelming percentage of churches closed their doors and reverted to virtual and online ministry. However, as the pandemic wore on and authorities began loosening restrictions on in-person meetings, churches, like restaurants, retail stores, and businesses, were ready to resume meetings while abiding by generally applicable health and public safety requirements such as wearing masks and practicing social distancing. But many churches soon found themselves held to a different standard.
As of October 7, worship services are prohibited or currently subject to unequal treatment (compared to nonreligious activities) in six states (California, Nevada, Virginia, Maine, New Jersey, and Connecticut). Another 13 states and Washington, D.C. have restrictions that limit churches' ability to gather for worship or other religious activities but that are facially equal to the restrictions on comparable secular activities.
Despite obvious violations of First Amendment protections, earlier this week New York Governor Andrew Cuomo (D) once again threatened to shut down churches and synagogues if they do not follow the state's regulations on capacity limitations, mask wearing, and social distancing.
Unfortunately, Cuomo is just another in a long string of governors and mayors that have used the pandemic to restrict religious liberty and provide unnecessarily barriers to those who wish to freely practice their faith. California's Governor Newsom has been doing this for some time and Governor Sisolak of Nevada has shown preferential treatment to casinos for months and continues to do so even after being taken to the Supreme Court by Calvary Chapel Dayton Valley to challenge his mandates.
In response, many Christians are standing up against the blatant discrimination of overzealous state and local officials. In Virginia, Pastor Brian Hermsmeier along with lay leaders in his congregation, took legal action against Governor Ralph Northam over the governor's unfair treatment of churches. Pastor Hermsmeier of Slate Mills Baptist Church joined Family Research Council's Tony Perkins on Tuesday's episode of Washington Watch to explain how God blessed his decision to stand up for his church's religious liberty.
In Virginia, churches were under greater restrictions than businesses and restaurants. Specifically, churches were required to follow strict caps on the number of people allowed into their buildings. At God's promptings, four churchmen, Brian Hermsmeier, Joe Sansone, Mike Sharman, and Charlie Sheads, filed a lawsuit against the governor over the state's unfair treatment of churches. They argued that the governor's coronavirus restrictions for churches violated the Virginia State Constitution and the Virginia Bill of Rights, both of which provide a greater protection of religious freedom than that of the First Amendment.
After he was taken to court, Governor Northam signed an order declaring that none of his COVID-19 orders applied to churches which have less than 250 attendees, with the exception of Executive Order 63 requiring face coverings. The order applies to all churches in Virginia. As Hermsmeier explained, "Now we get to see that, at least in Virginia, hopefully across the nation, that churches are allowed to meet together and worship."
Pastor Hermsmeier and the courage of the three laymen should be commended. This story is a reminder of how we can make a difference. Their decision to take a stand for their religious freedom had a rippling effect throughout the entire state, and as a result, thousands of churches in Virginia can now meet without fear of government reprisal. As Hermsmeier explained, "We just said yes to the Lord and let him take control."
The story of Slate Mills Baptist Church is a powerful reminder of what happens when Christians are willing to stand for truth. This upcoming Sunday, Pastor Hermsmeier will join Tony Perkins and Pastor Jack Hibbs along with several others for Freedom Sunday, a special event to encourage and mobilize pastors and churches to stand for biblical values in increasingly unsettled times.
For more information about attending Freedom Sunday and about the live stream, visit FreedomSunday2020.org.