Speaking from the White House Friday in a tone somewhere between national reconciliation and Christian proselytization, Vice President Mike Pence cautioned ministers to keep their churches closed or to otherwise obey strict social distancing measures for Good Friday and Easter Sunday. Pence issued the cautions due to news of ministers being arrested, defiant churches vowing to remain open, and parishioners suing the government for alleged violations of the rights to gather and worship during the novel coronavirus pandemic.
Pence started out with a few platitudes for religious communities before cutting right to the chase.
“I know I speak on behalf of the president when I say how grateful we are to all of the churches that have been there — and their ministries have been working under great difficulty — to continue to provide for the needs of your members. There have been food drives; there have been phone calls; ministry has continued,” Pence said from a daily Coronavirus Task Force briefing, referencing churches, synagogues, and other houses of worship.
From there, he turned toward the chance that some churches would attempt to hold large services this weekend.
“We also want to say, very respectfully, to all of the church communities around this country and all of the places of worship: continue to heed the guidelines issued in the president’s coronavirus guidelines for America,” he said. “We know it’s difficult in this time of year, in particular, Mr. President, to avoid gatherings of more than ten, but we’re grateful that so many churches, synagogues, and places of worship have done just that, and we to urge you to continue do it.”
A megachurch pastor in Tampa, Fla., Rodney Howard-Browne, was arrested recently for refusing to close his church to large gatherings. He said that if other “essential” services were expected to remain open, he should be able to remain open, too. Louisiana pastor Tony Spell also defied orders to close to large gatherings and now faces charges. He recently said that “[t]rue Christians do not mind dying” and that “death looks to them like a welcome friend.”
A church in San Diego, Calif., is suing to remain open against local executive orders to temporarily close because of the virus. The lawsuit says the church believes “a physical assembly in one place on the Lord’s Day is an essential part” of worship, and that a “failure to assemble is an unconscionable violation of God’s commands.” A group of churches in Houston, Texas joined together to file a similar lawsuit there. A parishioner in Virginia sued to be able to attend services in his state; a judge threw it out. The Virginia plaintiff complained unsuccessfully that an executive order by Gov. Ralph Northam, a Democrat, prevented religious gatherings but did not prevent the press from working (and thus singled out one First Amendment right over another). A court document filed by the state said that “[a]s a person of faith, the Governor recognized that the temporary gatherings restriction would be particularly hard on religious communities” but won the argument that the measures were necessary. Similar lawsuits have been filed in federal court.
A showdown may also be shaping up in Kansas. There, Gov. Laura Kelly, a Democrat, issued a COVID-19 executive order which originally allowed religious services of any size to continue. She changed it. The state legislature overturned the change. The president of the state senate, Susan Wagle, a Republican, said she was infuriated that abortion clinics were open while churches were closed. The Republican re-opening of churches led to its own outrage. “On this one Easter Sunday, responsible Christians across the world will be celebrating the empty tomb by keeping their pews empty, too,” said an opinion piece in the Kansas City Star. Kelly is suing to flip the legislature’s move.
Pence did not call out any pastor in particular. He cited the Christian Bible to try to convince other Christians that the meaning of Easter Sunday will not be lost through remote or small group services.
“And to my Christian Brothers and Sisters across the country, let me encourage you with the words we should all remember, that Jesus said wherever two or more are gathered, there He is there also,” Pence said. “And, so, you can worship, you can celebrate Easter, and know you’ll be blessed in so doing, and you’ll be serving the nation.”
Pence said not going to church was no reason to avoid the offering plate.
“Even if you’re not in the pew this Sunday, if you are able, it’s still a good idea to give because those ministries continue to go forward. And we encourage you — we encourage you to continue to support them” Pence said.
President Donald Trump then took the podium.
“Okay, it’s Good Friday, let’s be nice, okay?” he asked the press before taking questions. “Let’s be real nice.”
When asked about Easter, Trump said he would be watching remote services led by Robert Jeffress, a Dallas pastor and Fox News contributor, on a laptop.
Trump said the underlying legal subject was “complex,” but that pastors were “better off doing what they’re doing, which is distancing.”
“They feel that — let’s get this over with, and they want to get back to church, so badly,” Trump said.
[Image via screen capture from NBC News.]
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