Pastors pushing back against lockdown restrictions on church attendance

More than 60 churches planning to reopen Sunday, with or without permission.

Last Updated:
May 26, 2020 - 3:07pm

Across America something is stirring: Pastors are slowly but surely coming to a stark realization: They’ve had enough of the COVID-19 crackdowns. They are pushing back against prolonged, government-mandated shutdowns of house of worship and urging believers to reclaim their First Amendment right to the free exercise of religion.

“Don't let the government dictate to you what your fundamental American rights are,” Pastor Brian Gibson of HIS Church in Owensboro, Kentucky tells Just The News in a podcast interview for The Pod's Honest Truth. “It's time to stand up for liberty.”

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This Sunday, Gibson’s church along with more than 60 others will open their doors for in-person services for the first time since closing them to help slow the spread of the coronavirus. It’s part of a petition effort called “Peaceably Gather,” a show of respectfully restrained civil disobedience done with full safety precautions in place.

“Our ushers will be wearing gloves and masks,” Gibson says. “And then when we release the people … it's one row at a time.” 

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Gibson and many other pastors say it’s past time to proclaim that restricting church services is unconstitutional. In the case of Gibson’s Kentucky church, Governor Andy Beshear was planning to allow places of worship to gradually open on May 20, but Gibson is doing it a few days earlier to make a point. 

“Some people would say, ‘Does three days matter?’” Gibson says. “I would say three days is a massive statement. It's a statement to the governor that you can't step past our constitutional bounds.”

As Gibson sees it, faith and freedom have been inseparably intertwined in the American project since the founding. “If you look at the protection of our Constitution, in the founding of America in general, preachers led the charge," he says. “I'm a pastor first, but I'm also a patriot.”

This current movement is one that seeks to restore First Amendment protections that many pastors and Christians see eroding before their eyes under the COVID-19 lockdowns blanketing the nation. 

“There is an awakening happening in the country,” says Rick Green, founder of Constitution Coach, a Texas-based nonprofit aimed at educating Americans on their basic constitutional rights. “I never dreamed I would see almost every basic constitutional right being trampled almost on a daily basis. We're talking religion, speech, protest, travel, due process … virtually no part of the Constitution is being left unscathed.” 

Green contends that the dire warnings of millions dying haven’t materialized so adjustments need to be made. “What we would call a compelling interest for the state to actually shut us down is no longer a compelling interest,” he argues.

This newfound religious awakening is taking hold and popping up all across the country. In California, thousands of pastors are set to resume in-person services on May 31 (Pentecost Sunday), despite the state’s governor, Gavin Newsom, listing churches as not being allowed to open until the state's phase 3, which could be months away.  

In Illinois, some places of worship are holding services despite Governor J.B. Pritzker’s mandate that religious gatherings can have no more than 10 people. As a matter of fact, the governor says it’s very possible that church gatherings of 50 people or more may not take place until a vaccine is discovered, which could potentially be up to a year from now. For constitutional Christians like Rick Green, that’s simply over the top. “I believe the most dangerous pandemic in the country is actually a virus of tyrannical orders,” he says.

In Oregon, ten congregations have filed a lawsuit against Democratic Governor Kate Brown claiming she is overstepping her rightful constitutional authority and violating their religious freedom.

In Dedham, Massachusetts, the Board of Health sent a cease-and-desist letter to a local church saying they couldn’t re-open, even though they planned to do so with no more than 10 worshippers. The local officials said the church is “not a business providing essential services.”

This word, “essential,” has been a common theme and complaint among pastors during the ongoing quest to begin meeting again. They argue if liquor stores and marijuana dispensaries are open for business, why not churches? 

“Pastors and religious leaders are looking and saying, 'Why can these services go [on] but church is not essential?'” Gibson says. “Church is essential, so essential it's protected in the First Amendment.” 

And if Costco and Walmart can allow large groups into a big space with certain safety precautions in place, they reason, why can’t churches do the same? 

“You can't tell a church not to meet when you're letting Walmart meet,” Rick Green says. “Pastors can exercise as much common sense as the manager at Walmart.”

This crusade by pastors on both moral and constitutional grounds is relying on legal help as well. The organization Alliance Defending Freedom says it has now helped over 2,000 churches and ministries navigate the treacherous legal waters swirling around free exercise. They’ve also taken legal action in almost a dozen cases against local officials.

A myriad of Christian-based legal groups have teamed together to introduce a “Know Your Rights” Digital Hotline. Constitution Coach Founder Rick Green says it was set up “to offer emergency information to folks in situations where they sense their rights are being violated and get them information and key resources, and the best constitutional attorneys in America.”

The Trump administration seems to be sending signals that they understand the current unrest among church leaders. This week, for example, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released new safety guidelines for establishments, but refrained from issuing guidance for churches. It’s another indication that as certain states move into a phased re-opening, churches are taking it upon themselves to begin their new phase too. 

“At first we were willing to be measured because we want to protect everyone,” Pastor Gibson says. “Jesus is in the healing business, loving and caring business. We don't want to see anybody injured, but now the First Amendment is being run over roughshod ... I think we're at a place where you have to strike a balance, because we're headed towards a constitutional crisis right now.”