Hispanic evangelical leader and Sacramento megachurch pastor Samuel Rodriguez and a Christian college president have called on California leaders to allow churches to reopen their doors as places of worship as the pace of new coronavirus cases has slowed down in recent days.
“We are mindful of our nation’s proud heritage of religious liberty, established from its founding as a place of refuge and respect for people of faith,” the leaders wrote in an open letter.
“Today, we join together respectfully urging California’s governor, county supervisors, mayors and other civic leaders to support the reopening of church gatherings in ways that are sensitive to public health concerns as well as providing for the fundamental freedoms so richly encouraging to personal and societal well-being and ensconced in our founding documents.”
Rodriguez, the head of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference and pastor of New Season Church, along with William Jessup University President John Jackson published the letter Wednesday to provide an outline for how churches across the state should slowly start to reopen to full capacity once they are able.
The letter comes as countless churches in California and across the nation have halted in-person services and moved services online in recent weeks to obey social distancing orders aimed at combating the spread of the virus.
Some churches in the state have filed lawsuits over California Gov. Gavin Newsome’s stay-at-home order banning large gatherings and similar county-level orders that are preventing them from gathering for worship.
“We are grateful to our governmental leaders and have been in increased corporate and personal prayer for them throughout these days,” the letter from Rodriguez and Jackson says. “We understand that various counties in California have different circumstances and are mindful that state, county, and local guidance will provide varying public health frameworks that church leaders can utilize in addition to any national guidelines that are provided.”
In the letter, Rodriguez and Jackson say they want to work with the state, county and local leaders. They add that they are “mindful of the importance of doing so with mutual respect in alignment with our convictions around Romans 13 and other appropriate biblical passages” calling on Christians to obey government authorities.
“We believe that churches can and will be responsible as members of our community utilizing the following guidelines here in California,” the leaders contend.
The letter suggests that churches utilize “drive-in resources” for the first part of May as well as minimize public gatherings for the first two weekends of the month. The letter advises churches to move to 50% of building capacity in the last two weeks of May.
“We advocate that churches consider, if they gather in auditoriums, expanding their sanitizing procedures and encouraging the wearing of masks where appropriate,” Rodriguez and Jackson wrote.
Starting in June, the Christian leaders encourage churches to develop procedures allowing them to “reconvene in public worship and classroom settings” at 75% of room capacities in addition to maintaining proper sanitizing protocols and deferring to government safety guidelines when necessary.
By July, the leaders say churches should be able to amp up to 100% of building capacities depending on “public health guidelines provided leading up to this time period.”
“The Scriptures tell us that ‘hope deferred makes the heart sick, but a longing fulfilled is a tree of life’ (Proverbs 13:12 NIV),” the letter concludes. “A return to worship, teaching, shared service, compassion and generosity is in the heart of the people. We believe together that people of faith across the state of California will experience a rebirth of joy, hope and life with these measured and responsible steps in our state.”
Their letter comes after the Christian conservative legal group Liberty Counsel launched a campaign last week calling on churches nationwide to resume live in-person and drive-in services on May 3.
The day has been deemed ReOpen Church Sunday and falls on the Sunday before the National Day of Prayer takes place next Thursday. While the campaign calls on churches to resume services, it also advises them to follow appropriate safety protocols when doing so.
“We chose May 3 because it is part of that phase one of the ‘Opening America Again’ [proposal] that President [Trump] issued as guidelines,” Liberty Counsel founder and attorney Mat Staver told The Christian Post. “That actually begins on May 1 and that is the first phase of the three-phase program and churches are included in that phase.”
U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom Chairman Tony Perkins, who was previously critical of churches holding in-person services, told CP at the time that he also thinks “it is time.”
“I think we are seeing the curve flatten out in most places. But there are still a few hotspots,” Perkins said. “I am hesitant because we need to be careful that we are not drawing a line, saying ‘this is the day and everybody needs to be back in their churches.’”
Jeffrey J. Barrows, the senior vice president of bioethics and public policy for the Christian Medical & Dental Associations, told CP last week that churches that choose to ignore government social distancing orders during the pandemic are placing their congregants at risk.
“We recommend that all churches follow the guidance provided by their government officials during this unprecedented outbreak,” Barrows explained.