When Rev. Alvin Gwynn Sr., the longtime senior pastor of Friendship Baptist Church in Baltimore, decided to hold worship services even amid the social-distancing restrictions in effect across the state on Sunday morning, he drew attention to perceived ambiguities in the emergency orders Gov. Larry Hogan has issued to stem the spread of coronavirus.
Gwynn limited attendance at his two regular Sunday services to 10 people, in keeping with state and federal health department guidelines, and says worshipers remained at least six feet from one another throughout. But that didn’t stop a member of the public from filing a report of a suspected illegal gathering, or Baltimore Police from arriving during one of Gwynn’s services to try to shut the gathering down.
Among the questions Gwynn posed in the aftermath: does the stay-at-home order Hogan issued on Monday, which required Marylanders to stay in their homes except when pursuing “essential” duties, define religious activity as essential or non-essential?
“Can the state stop people from coming out of their homes to worship?” Gwynn asked in one of the many interviews he held with local and national news outlets. “It’s a constitutional matter.”
The governor’s office sharpened its positions on those and other questions Wednesday when its office of legal counsel published a revised set of guidelines in regard to worship practice during the pandemic.
The directives, issued as an order of the governor, amend and restate the order of March 23 prohibiting large gatherings and events and “closing senior centers, and all non-essential businesses and other establishments, additionally requiring all persons to stay at home.”
Here are its essential provisions.
Are faith leaders and houses of worship permitted to hold in-person religious services?
Under Wednesday’s order, clergy and other staff members of religious facilities may carry out religious services as long as they’re in full compliance with “applicable guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and the Maryland Department of Health” when it comes social distancing, limits on the size of gatherings and cleanliness.
What specific conditions do the new guidelines address?
The directive states that there may be no more than 10 people “inside the religious facility” during a given gathering, including clergy, staff and participants, and that those in attendance must maintain a distance of 6 feet between themselves and others present throughout the gathering.
It prohibits physical contact between any individuals present, a ban that applies to liturgical practices customary to many faith traditions, from handshakes to the sharing of Holy Communion. “This [ban] includes, but is not limited to, collecting donations by basket or plate,” the directive reads.
At least one provision promises conflict with Gwynn’s stated intention to carry out his reduced services at his church’s customary times (7:45 and 10:45 a.m.): It calls for at least a four-hour gap between the end of one in-person service and the beginning of the next.
“The Religious Facility should be cleaned between services, in accordance with CDC cleaning and disinfection guidance,” the directive reads.
Services conducted remotely are permitted.
Does Hogan’s stay-at-home order, which limits outside visits to “essential” functions, permit Marylanders to attend religious services?
The directive does not specify whether houses of worship are to be defined as “essential businesses,” but it does make clear that residents may attend such services, so long as they, and the gatherings, are in compliance with existing governmental guidelines.
Religious facilities, it says, are generally permitted to carry out “minimal operations,” a term that “includes, but is not necessarily limited to, facilitating remote services.”
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Rev. Mark Bialek, the pastor of St. John Catholic Church in Westminster, should be happy with one other provision.
Bialek held an impromptu “drive-in Eucharistic Adoration,” inviting parishioners to visit the church parking lot in their cars at 7 p.m. on March 15, where they could view the Eucharistic host, or consecrated bread, from distances of 6 feet or more. More than 120 vehicles showed up.
It was one of several “drive-in” worship opportunities offered by churches during the pandemic, including a number of “drive-through confessions" offered by Catholic priests.
Bialek was asked by the Archdiocese of Baltimore not to repeat the exercise, he says, on grounds that it could be considered a large gathering.
The new directive reverses that interpretation.
“Churches, synagogues, mosques, temples, and other similar religious facilities of any faith,” the directive may conduct “drive-in” services, “where participants gather in their vehicles near the religious facility and participate in the service together by remote means,” so long as all present complies with existing restrictions on social distancing.
Participants, for instance, will be barred from interacting physically with clergy, staff, or participants in other vehicles and having more than 10 people in a vehicle.