Despite receiving a closure notice Sunday from Baltimore City’s health department over COVID-19 violations, a high-profile evangelical church has continued to hold services for the public, even livestreaming them online.
Greater Grace World Outreach Church in Northeast Baltimore’s Frankford neighborhood was ordered to close after a service Sunday because of a lack of social distancing and masking, health officials said, and is not yet permitted to reopen.
Wednesday night, the evangelical church’s service featured a live nine-member band, some of whom wore masks, in addition to its pastor, who argued against mask wearing and other restrictions in places of worship.
At times, a crowd could be heard laughing and clapping on the livestream, and the footage captured numerous people exiting the pews as the service concluded.
Baltimore police officers arrived at the scene at about 7:30 p.m., an agency spokeswoman said, but the service continued to its conclusion.
It is police — rather than the health department — that would investigate whether any criminal citations are warranted, and would likely use any body-camera footage gathered Wednesday night, said Stefanie Mavronis, spokeswoman for Mayor Brandon Scott.
“This is not a barroom. This is not Home Depot. This is not a bowling alley. This is not the Baltimore Oriole stadium,” said Pastor Thomas Schaller during Wednesday’s service. “This is a church. And when we come in here, God is in charge.”
The debate on restrictions on public gatherings has played out in churches and courtrooms across the nation since the pandemic struck the U.S. a year ago. In November, the U.S. Supreme Court knocked down New York’s pandemic restrictions on religious institutions, arguing that they violated First Amendment protections.
But New York’s rules at the time were far stricter than the rules in Baltimore. In coronavirus “red zones” in New York, services were capped at 10 people, and in “orange zones” they were capped at 25. Lawyers had argued that the order, which came after an uptick in cases within the Orthodox Jewish community but applied to all religious institutions, “singled out” a particular religion.
In Baltimore, churches and other places of worship are currently permitted to open at 25% capacity, provided that face masks are worn and social distancing is “encouraged.” Scott announced this week that those limits will be loosened to 50% capacity as of March 26.
When closed by the health department, organizations and businesses are “required to shut down public operations” until they submit a “COVID-19 safe reopening plan” and the plan is discussed with and approved by city health officials, wrote health department spokesman Adam Abadir in a statement. While the facility is closed, “staff are allowed to enter and exit,” Abadir said.
The church has not submitted a reopening plan, Abadir said.
Representatives from the church did not respond Thursday to requests for comment. The megachurch has hundreds of locations worldwide and is headquartered in Baltimore. It’s no stranger to controversy. In the 1980s, for instance, a federal court ruled that the church’s pastor at the time used undue influence to obtain millions of dollars from a donor.
During his sermon Wednesday, Schaller often focused on the mental health effects of pandemic restrictions, rather than the effects of the disease.
“Many of us don’t care about it anymore,” Schaller said of COVID-19. “We are hugging and kissing. We are embracing and living.”
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Cheers rose from the crowd.
Schaller said he didn’t want to enforce mask-wearing, a requirement indoors under Gov. Larry Hogan’s executive order, because he wanted all to feel welcome in the church.
“When somebody comes to the door and they don’t have a mask on, and they don’t want to wear one … in my heart I say: You’re welcome; you can come in,” Schaller said. “And you can sit here and those that are without masks can sit there.”
His complaints about restrictions were sprinkled amid Bible verses, anecdotes about missionary work and an attack on “cross-dressing.”
“When we have communion, we take our mask off. We have to. How can we eat with it on?” he said. “We sing. I don’t want to be conscious of any disease.
“I’m done. I’m finished.”
Baltimore Sun reporter McKenna Oxenden contributed to this article.