Deena C. Bouknight, Contributing Writer
Under N.C. Governor Roy Cooper’s May 5 order, retail businesses previously considered nonessential were allowed to open, but are required to be capped at 50% capacity. However, gatherings of more than 10 people are still prohibited, meaning church services are allowed only if they are outside and congregants remain at least six feet apart. Therein lies the rub for church leadership and the many people who attend churches in Macon County. In fact, several churches and pastors in other parts of the state filed a federal lawsuit last Thursday, May 14, challenging those restrictions and arguing that the limits violated their congregants’ rights to worship freely.
Then, on Saturday, May 16, U.S. District Judge James Dever III granted a temporary restraining order for Gov. Cooper’s restrictions. According to a local news report: “In the court order, Judge Dever said “plaintiffs have established that (1) they are likely to succeed on the merits of their claim that the assembly for religious worship provisions in EO 138 violates their rights under the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment; (2) they are likely to suffer irreparable harm absent a temporary restraining order; (3) the balance of the equities tips in their favor; and (4) a temporary restraining order is in the public interest.”
Judge Dever commented after the ruling, “This court does not doubt that the governor is acting in good faith to lessen the spread of COVID-19 and to protect North Carolinians, but restrictions inexplicably applied to one group and exempted from another do little to further these goals and do much to burden religious freedom.”
Gov. Cooper’s press office responded with, “While our office disagrees with the decision, we will not appeal, but instead urge houses of worship and their leaders to voluntarily follow public health guidance to keep their members safe.”
According to the judge’s ruling, the order shall remain in place for no longer than 14 days. Another hearing is set for the case on May 29 at 11 a.m.
“I’m happy about the judge’s ruling,” said Fred Balke, pastor at Good Shepherd Lutheran. He plans to listen to Gov. Cooper’s press conference regarding the end of Phase 1 of the Stay at Home Order, which officially ends at 5 p.m. Friday, May 22; but Balke is hopeful Good Shepherd will be open for a service this Sunday.
He explained that since the church building is large and the congregation is small, hosting a safe service is doable. “We will be able to spread out, and we will have plenty of hand sanitizer.”
Balke said he expects his elderly attendees to “trickle in” over the next several weeks as they become more comfortable with venturing out.
Discover Church pastor Ben Windle announced Sunday that after meeting extensively with staff members a questionnaire would be mailed out to attendees to learn what scenarios might be readily acceptable when the church building reopens. For example, he stated that the lobby coffee station may not be, at least temporarily, self-serve, and that there could be hand sanitizer stations and seats spaced apart.
Windle said the most asked question is “When will school start back?” indicating people are anxious to begin fellowshipping in person again. He said in his Monday May 18 e-mail communication with attendees: “I know that most of us want a rock solid date. But as you know, things are changing every day. While it’s within our rights to gather for services, it’s also completely legal to have a brown bear as a pet. We just want to make sure we do so in a way that’s safe and a win for everyone. Not the bear thing, the church thing. We’ve ordered extra hand sanitizer stations, more and specialized cleaning supplies to completely sanitize the entire building between services, forehead thermometers to quickly know if volunteers or kids have a fever, masks for volunteers, prepared to have a different no-contact greeting at the door, serve coffee to you instead of self-serve …”
David Beam, pastor of First Methodist, pointed out that even though Judge Dever granted a temporary restraining order for Gov. Cooper’s restrictions on church gatherings, he and other church leaders have no immediate plans to offer in-person services.
“Just because you can doesn’t mean you should,” said Beam. “We have many at-risk who attend church here, both older and younger, so we have been talking to three medical professionals in our church and right now do not have plans worked out regarding dates. It may be July before we meet again. The great leadership here is keeping in mind practical, commonsense, pragmatic, and sensible considerations.”
Beam stressed that First Methodist, like most churches in Macon County, have not “closed” per se. Two services and Sunday school are available online on Sundays; plus, First Methodist is still involved in ministry and missions. “There is no doubt we are all looking forward to being back together, but we’re just going to be cautious and calculated in how we do that.”
First Presbyterian Church is following the advice of its denomination, health experts, and governmental phasing plans, according to Pastor Tempe’ Fussell. “This is consistent with the gospel imperative to reach out to and support the vulnerable and suffering, and to protect as many as possible from the same suffering. To this end we are not worshipping outside as there are impediments to safe distancing. When the state guidelines permit up to 50 to gather, we will have two services in our facilities (in two different worship spaces). Worshippers will be coached to arrive in staggered ways and to practice safe measures. There will be music, but no singing of hymns. In the future we will continue online services that will be aired on our website and our Facebook page. As long as we are unable to come together as a full congregation, we will also continue, Monday mailings, Tuesday and Thursday emails, and Friday Bible study.”
“This time, although tragic for many, has refocused us on our mission to share the love of Jesus and serve our community,” said John Makinson, pastor at Franklin Covenant Church. “As for what fellowship looks like going forward, we will continue to use and expand our online presence. Facebook and YouTube have been tremendous tools for us to both stay in contact with each other and let the community know what we are doing to help. We are also in the planning stages to reopen our fellowship building, with the expected safety measures in place. We do not have a date yet, but should announce soon. We will not do so until we believe it is safe.”
St. Francis of Assisi offered that they have no planned time frame when services will begin again. Many churches in the area are taking a wait-and-see approach.