A prominent Baltimore pastor said he will hold worship services at 50 percent capacity in his 500-seat church this weekend despite an announcement by Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young that a stay-at-home order related to the coronavirus remains in effect.
The Rev. Alvin Gwynn Sr., pastor of Friendship Baptist Church in Northeast Baltimore, said he intends to lead two services in the church on Loch Raven Boulevard with the pews potentially half full, a decision that would allow up to 250 worshipers inside for each.
The 74-year-old minister said he plans for the congregation to abide by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines for social distancing, along with the looser restrictions on businesses and other organizations Gov. Larry Hogan introduced this week as part of the state’s coronavirus recovery efforts.
The state-level changes gave permission for religious organizations in Maryland to hold outdoor services as well as indoor services at 50 percent capacity, though Hogan made it clear that each county was at liberty to implement and adjust those suggested guidelines as needed.
Notified Thursday evening that Young had announced an extension of existing restrictions in Baltimore that ban gatherings of more than 10, Gwynn said he will defy them.
“We’ll follow distancing guidelines, and do this safely, but we’re going to be open at 50 percent capacity like the governor said,” he said. “I don’t know what the mayor’s trying to do. He wants to have a knock-down about First Amendment rights? He’s the mayor, not the pastor of churches in the city.”
Friendship Baptist Church has about 800 members, said Gwynn, now in his 19th year as its pastor. Worship services are held there at 7:45 a.m. and 10:45 a.m. every Sunday.
Spokespersons for Baltimore police and the mayor’s office did not respond Friday to requests for comment on Gwynn’s plans.
His stand comes at a moment when most local churches, synagogues and mosques are opting to remain closed to in-person worship, loosened restrictions notwithstanding. Limits on in-person religious services also have been extended in Anne Arundel and Baltimore counties.
The Episcopal Diocese of Maryland will continue to offer livestreamed Sunday worship but ban in-person services for now, spokeswoman Carrie Graves said this week. The Baltimore-Washington Conference of the United Methodist Church has adopted a similar policy, according to spokesman Erik Aalsgard.
Howard Libit, executive director of the Baltimore Jewish Council, said he knows of no synagogues planning to offer in-person services, indoor or outdoor, in the Baltimore area in the near future. Ed Tori, president of the area’s largest mosque, the Islamic Center of Baltimore in Catonsville, said its buildings would remain closed at least through the end of the month.
Two area megachurches, Empowerment Temple AME Church in Baltimore and Grace Fellowship Church in Timonium, also said they will continue offering livestreamed and online services only, and the Rev. Dr. Harold S. Carter, senior pastor of New Shiloh Baptist Church, said his congregation would do the same.
“As delighted as we are that Phase 1 [of the state’s reopening plan] is upon us, and as anxious as we are to return to some sense of regular, public worship, New Shiloh will continue to do Virtual Worship Services, at least though the end of this month (5th Sunday), even mindful that that Sunday marks Pentecost for Christians,” said Carter, who was one of 28 clergy members of a Clergy Advisory Task Force that worked with Hogan on developing the newest state guidelines.
The Archdiocese of Baltimore, meanwhile, has issued to its parishes a comprehensive set of guidelines for reopening across three phases. They include safety protocols touching on everything from liturgical practices to sanitation schedules.
The archdiocese will offer a limited number of in-person services starting Friday evening, including wedding and funeral Masses, confessions and adorations.
In keeping with Young’s orders, no more than 10 attendees will be allowed in city parishes, and regular Sunday Mass services remain suspended across the archdiocese until at least the end of the month.
“Above all, we want to be sure that the churches we are reopening are safe for our people,” said Sean Caine, a spokesman for the archdiocese, in a statement this week.
It’s not the first time Gwynn has taken a stand on what he sees as challenges to Americans’ constitutional guarantees of religious freedom as governments impose restrictions during the coronavirus pandemic.
He made headlines in late March after Baltimore police arrived during a service he was conducting with orders to “shut down the gathering,” according to an incident report provided by the Baltimore Police Department.
Officers departed after a brief confrontation with Gwynn as worshipers left at the end of the 10:45 a.m. service, the report said.
Gwynn said the service in question was fully in compliance with the order Hogan issued March 19 limiting the size of gatherings to 10 people or fewer.
He also said that in his view, the government may restrict neither the size of gatherings for worship nor a citizen’s right to attend a service — an assertion some constitutional scholars have disputed.
Gwynn was one of several clergy members who drew nationwide attention at the time by holding services in what appeared to be defiance of local lockdown orders.
The Rev. Rodney Howard-Browne, the leader of Revival International Ministries in Tampa, Florida, for example, was arrested for holding full services March 29 at the River at Tampa Bay Church.
Howard-Browne sued; the district attorney’s office for Hillsborough County, Florida, dropped the charges against him Friday.
Gwynn has been holding church services with sharply limited attendance on Sunday mornings since the incident with police, allowing only 10 people into the building on a first-come, first-served basis.
Gwynn said his church will continue to follow federal and state guidelines regarding social distancing, if not Young’s attendance restrictions, on Sunday.
“The governor went to 50 percent capacity because he knows it leaves room for 6-foot spacing,” he said. “I’m going to get a ruler and measure it out.”