Trump designates churches essential; Newsom speeds plan for California houses of worship to reopen

By Terry Barone on May 23, 2020

After President Donald Trump designated churches essential on May 22, California Gov. Gavin Newsom vowed to provide plans on Monday (May 25) allowing California churches to open campuses for worship services.

In a White House press conference Trump officially designated churches as “essential places that provide essential services.”

Trump said, “Some governors have deemed liquor stores and abortion clinics as essential but have left out churches and houses of worship. It is not right. I’m correcting this injustice and calling houses of worship essential.”

Trump’s designation was made on the heels of a U.S. Department of Justice letter sent to Newsom criticizing the governor of “unequal treatment of faith communities” in his plan preventing faith groups from gathering in person, while other secular businesses are permitted to reopen earlier, with social distancing guidelines.

The letter noted "California has not shown why interactions in offices and studios of the entertainment industry, and in-person operations to facilitate nonessential ecommerce, are included on the list as being allowed with social distancing where telework is not practical, while gatherings with social distancing for purposes of religious worship are forbidden."

The Justice Department letter concluded that this placed an “unfair burden” on places of worship.

On May 19, Newsom said opening churches was “a few weeks away.” The governor reported he has been working with religious leaders to establish protocols for reopening churches for services.

Bill Agee, CSBC executive director, said “This is great news for CSBC congregations who are willing to do whatever necessary to gather once again. Dates for reopening church campuses will be all over the place. I know of churches ready to open on Pentecost Sunday, May 31, while others are planning to begin gathering in June. I know of a church in the LA area whose pastor said his congregation may not meet for months.”

Amid Newsom working with a coalition of faith leaders, Agee on May 15 sent a letter to the governor on behalf of all CSBC congregations encouraging him to deem churches essential as “part of the fabric of the State of California and our nation.”

Agee also wrote, “Some only see churches as essential to the ‘spiritual growth and maturity’ of its members. I would submit the church also is essential to the emotional and mental wellbeing of its members.”

A CSBC Church Reopen Package posted on May 15 noted Southern Baptist polity and encouraged pastors to lead their congregations while following guidance of the Holy Spirit.

The reopen package stated, “One of the key values and guiding principles of the Southern Baptist Denomination is the autonomy of the individual church. With that in mind, it is our conviction to empower you to accomplish what God is calling you to do. Your leadership is integral in deciding what is best for your congregation while considering federal, state, and local regulations.”

The Los Angeles Times reported that during a briefing on May 22 Newsom said, “We look forward to churches reopening in a safe and responsible manner, and we have guidelines that we anticipate completing on Monday and we’re on track to do just that.”

Meanwhile, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) followed Trump’s announcement by issuing “Interim Guidance for Communities of Faith” with detailed recommendations for religious believers and institutions. The recommendations were offered in an effort “to help communities of faith discern how best to practice their beliefs while keeping their staff and congregations safe.”

Specifically, the guidance covered areas such as scaling up operations, best practices for hygiene and cleaning church facilities, using face coverings, guidance on shared materials, and tips on childcare and youth ministry.

The CDC was careful to point out the guidance “is non-binding public health guidance for consideration only; it is not meant to regulate or prescribe standards for interactions of faith communities in houses of worship. Any decision to modify specific religious rites, rituals, and services should be made by religious leaders.”

A release from the Ethics and Liberty Religious Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention in a May 22 release said the CDC guidance overall “is reasonable and helpful. The tone is, appropriately, not a directive to churches but counsel based on the medical data. Such counsel is hard to make specific since practices differ so much from congregation to congregation, even within the same religion or denomination. Every church we have worked with throughout this pandemic is working through a staging plan, communicating to their members what benchmarks they are looking for to know when to re-gather, how they will then phase that re-gathering in, and what steps they will take to ensure safety when they do.

“The CDC guidance is not a blueprint but it is a prompt to help leaders as they think through what questions to ask.”

Agee encourages CSBC churches to take into account“the CDC guidelines for churches and to look for and consider Gov. Newsom’s guidelines for faith groups when published.”

This Convention serves our culturally diverse congregations as we fulfill the Great Commandment and the Great Commission.