America’s churches are slowly, bumpily reopening. Today is Pentecost, when Jesus’s apostles are said to have received the Holy Spirit, marking the founding of the Church. Congregations’ approaches to easing restrictions have varied widely according to geography and temperament. In some states, churches have been allowed to open for several weeks; in harder-hit places, many clergy members are still waiting for the official blessing of their state and local governments. And, like a majority of Americans, most have been worried about reopening too quickly and exposing attendees to risk.
A small, vocal minority of pastors have begun to bristle at government-imposed restrictions on their worship, however. Some have simply opened according to their judgment, regardless of what their governments say. Others have sued for their right to gather, with mixed success: On Friday, the Supreme Court denied a California church’s request for relief from the state’s restrictions on their gatherings, with Chief Justice John Roberts calling claims of unconstitutional discrimination “quite improbable.” Regardless of their tactics, these churches may define how pastors perceive threats to their religious freedom in any future waves of the pandemic. “Let me put it this way,” James White, an Arizona pastor with a sizable online following, told me. “If [governments] call for this to happen again, there’s going to be a different response.”
Last week, President Donald Trump backed congregations that want to reopen. “Some governors have deemed liquor stores and abortion clinics as essential, but have left out churches and other houses of worship,” he said. “It’s not right.” The president directed governors to treat religious organizations as essential as they plan the next phases of reopening. Legally, the president has little power to determine the course of shutdowns at state and local levels. But politically, his words were significant. “Thank you @realDonaldTrump for reaffirming our rights as Americans!” tweeted Tony Suarez, a Tennessee pastor who serves as the executive vice president of the evangelical National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference. Trump’s sentiments align with those of a growing number of conservative pastors who believe governments are unfairly targeting churches and other houses of worship for closure. “My biggest passion in life is religious liberty and protecting the persecuted Church around the world. And now it’s come to my back door,” Suarez told me. “Once local governments can start telling churches when [they can] and when they cannot have church, we’re going down a road that I’m unwilling to go down.”
A very small number of churches have stayed open throughout the pandemic. Apologia Church, a nondenominational congregation in the Reformed tradition, was one of the few churches in Phoenix that refused to shut down. Because of the pandemic, the congregation was barred from the space it regularly rents. Eventually, members found a new place to meet on the other side of the city, in a plainly decorated evangelical church, where roughly 175 to 250 people have gathered each week since the outbreak started. “Our conclusion, from the beginning, was: This ain’t the plague,” White said. Worshipping together in person is a central part of being a church, he added. While the church’s leaders take the virus seriously and have been advising potentially vulnerable members to stay home, Jeff Durbin, one of White’s co-pastors, told me, they were wary of setting a precedent of shutting down. “We also wanted to very strongly communicate that panic is not a Christian virtue,” White said.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has reported that churches have been major sites for the spread of the coronavirus. One study of a small, rural Arkansas church showed that nearly 40 percent of its attendees developed confirmed cases of COVID-19 in mid-March after going to services where the pastor and his wife were infected. The media has widely covered cases of church leaders who defied CDC warnings and later contracted COVID-19; several died. For the most part, these cases are the exception. Most churches appear to have shut down and do not seem to be in a rush to reopen.
In better days, members of the Metro Praise International Church, a largely young, Latino church in a working-class neighborhood of Chicago, regularly headed out in their “gospel truck” to evangelize, wearing black T-shirts bearing the slogan “Chicago for Jesus” written in a cross decorated like the city’s flag. But in this moment of crisis, the roughly 300-person church was resolute: It would close. “It wasn’t even a second thought,” the pastor, Joe Wyrostek, told me this week. “There was zero defiance.” A number of congregants have contracted the virus.
By the end of April, after seven weeks of online-only services, however, Wyrostek grew skeptical of the limits imposed by Illinois Governor J. B. Pritzker and Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot. A state stay-at-home order, which was lifted May 28, limited religious gatherings to 10 people practicing social distancing. Officials strongly encourage churches to stay online or host drive-in worship. “Our folks were like, ‘What in the world?’ Other states were already allowing their churches to be considered essential,” Wyrostek said. On May 3, Wyrostek posted a sermon on Facebook titled “A Christian Response to Tyranny.” “The tyrannical never start off as they end,” the pastor said, standing in front of a row of self-authored books about living a faithful life. “In this situation, [tyranny] was promising you safety for the exchange of your religious freedom and your financial freedom. And it was violating the Constitution and violating the Bible.” The church hosted an in-person service the next week.
In our conversation, Wyrostek was worried about being associated with pastors who claimed that God would protect them from the virus, no matter what. “It’s not that we feel we have to do this in some kind of reckless way to achieve something with God, as if we are from a cult that thinks mindlessly about our practices,” he said. Wyrostek’s Facebook page is full of CDC statistics, which he points to as evidence that it’s safe for young people to gather at church. “Yes, we pastors can actually read scientific journals, review data, and relate information outside of Noah’s Ark,” he wrote. His church has looked to the CDC’s guidelines for houses of worship on gathering safely, including spacing out seats and providing hand sanitizer. Only about a third of the church’s members have been coming to its weekly services.
Government officials in Chicago and Illinois have said it’s still not safe for churches in the city to meet in groups larger than 10 people. On Thursday, the state issued new guidelines for faith communities that want to meet in larger numbers, in response to a Supreme Court challenge brought by two Chicago churches. But leaders have been reluctant to allow religious gatherings; last week, Lightfoot said Trump’s call to open churches was “dangerous and foolish.” In May, the city cracked down on noncompliant congregations: Metro Praise International was fined and threatened with more severe penalties. On the first two Sundays after it reopened, Metro Praise also faced significant backlash from its neighbors, Wyrostek told me. One woman stood outside the church and held up a sign that read You killed my grandma.
Pastors who disagree with their state and local leaders face a choice. They can reopen defiantly, the way Metro Praise International has done, fielding dozens of media interviews and choosing to meet despite government restrictions. They can sue, as a number of churches in Chicago and California have, with mixed success. Or they can look to the federal government: The Department of Justice has pressured California Governor Gavin Newsom to accommodate churches in the state’s next round of reopening. The pastors who are waging these fights matter because they’re often the loudest voices: They set the national conversation about the government’s right to shut down religious services, now and in future crises.
Still, many pastors who are ready to open back up seem content to muddle through quietly, with lots of precautions in place. Tim Goddard, the pastor of Northside United Pentecostal Church in the Chicago suburbs, said members of his small church are itching to meet on Pentecost Sunday. He plans to cordon off rows, remind people to bring masks, and limit attendance to 20 or 25 percent of the church’s capacity, with attendees selected by where their last name falls in the alphabet. “I’m a little concerned. I don’t want our church to be painted in a negative light,” he told me. “It’s a fine line to walk, to try to find favor with the community, but also be obedient to the word of God.”