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Baltimore pastor vows to continue services despite coronavirus-related restrictions and visit from police

A prominent pastor is vowing to hold worship services this Sunday and beyond after Baltimore police tried to shut down a service at his church amid increasing coronavirus-related constraints on social gatherings.

The Rev. Alvin Gwynn Sr. said he was delivering a sermon Sunday to 10 worshipers when four patrol cars containing “eight or nine officers” pulled up in front of the Friendship Baptist Church and several tried to enter the building.

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Gwynn, the longtime senior pastor of the church on Loch Raven Boulevard, said security guards prevented the officers’ entry until he had finished his sermon.

“You should have seen it, man, it looked like a police raid on a drug deal,” he said.

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When he spoke to the officers outside, one asked whether he had “read the governor’s order” — a reference to a directive Gov. Larry Hogan issued March 19 limiting the size of gatherings in the state to 10 people or fewer.

The Rev. Alvin Gwynn Sr., of Friendship Baptist Church in Baltimore, sits March 19 in his church's sanctuary.
The Rev. Alvin Gwynn Sr., of Friendship Baptist Church in Baltimore, sits March 19 in his church's sanctuary. (Steve Ruark/AP)

When he asked officers to explain why they were there, Gwynn said, they looked “bewildered," declined to answer, and called a superior.

Lt. Suzanne Fries had advised the officers on the scene to “shut down the gathering,” according to an incident report supplied by the Baltimore Police Department.

“At this point, the church service ended and the crowd dispersed,” the report continued.

That, Gwynn said, was when the patrol cars departed and his congregants left.

Gwynn, 74, also serves as president of the Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance of Metropolitan Baltimore, a group that includes the leaders of more than 50 churches.

He said he limited the size of the gathering to 10 — the church’s five security guards were stationed outside the sanctuary — and ensured that those present had at least 6 feet of space between them, in compliance with guidelines issued by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and the state health department.

Attendance has been light in the weeks since coronavirus-related restrictions began, said Gwynn, who admitted worshipers Sunday on a first-come, first-served basis.

A police spokeswoman, Detective Chakia Fennoy, said officers were responding to a report of a gathering in violation of the governor’s orders.

It is unclear whether officers on the scene had an opportunity to assess the congregation’s compliance, but Fries’ decision to shut down the gathering came after Gwynn “advised [officers] that he will not be canceling any of his worship services in the future,” according to the incident report.

Gwynn said he will hold services again this Sunday and beyond, including Easter, but will again limit the gathering to 10 people or fewer.

“I’m not stupid,” he said. “I don’t want to go to jail. I’m more valuable to my community on the outside than the inside.”

The police department declined to comment specifically on the incident, but cited its commitment to “working with our local and state partners in supporting the governor’s executive order.”

“We encourage residents to call 311 with any nonemergency calls related to improperly open businesses or unlawful gatherings of crowds,” the department said in a statement. “Any officer that observes a business that is in violation of the governor’s executive order must investigate the complaint.”

The department “remains focused on keeping the public safe and will continue to work closely with our local partners to serve city residents and to decrease the spread of COVID-19,” the statement continued.

A defiant Gwynn clearly did not think much of that reasoning. He argued that under the Bill of Rights, the government cannot restrict either the size of gatherings for worship or a citizen’s right to attend a service.

“Remember, we have the First Amendment, which guarantees our most fundamental rights,” he said.

“Can the state stop people from coming out of their homes to worship? It’s a constitutional question. Congress can’t make laws governing worship or peaceful assembly. Our democracy wouldn’t be here if we didn’t have those rights.”

Gwynn said he will continue conducting other ministries as well, including Saturday Bible study, as attendance easily fits under the 10-person limit.

The pastor was concerned his decisions could raise further questions in the wake of the emergency stay-at-home order Hogan issued Monday. The order requires all those living in Maryland to stay home unless it’s to participate in “essential activities,” regardless of the size of the gathering.

It defines those as “activities essential for the health and safety of one’s self, family, household members, pets, or livestock, including such things as seeking medical or behavior health or emergency services, and obtaining medication or medical supplies.”

In a section that limits the size of gatherings, though, the order also appears to permit gatherings of 10 or fewer people. A statement from the governor’s office of legal counsel seemed to support “minimal” activity at houses of worship.

“Churches, synagogues, mosques, and other similar religious facilities are considered ‘Non-Essential Businesses’ under the Order,” the statement read. “Clergy and other staff of those religious facilities are permitted to continue conducting Minimal Operations ... provided that they comply with all applicable guidance from the CDC and MDH regarding social distancing.”

The Republican governor’s office could not be reached for comment, but the governor’s communications director, Mike Ricci, tweeted a response to a question about whether a group of five people would be in compliance if they assembled in church to record a pastor’s sermon for online use.

“Yes. Churches may have those kinds of minimal operations,” Ricci replied.

Gwynn pointed to a 2018 federal directive that appears to contradict Hogan’s decision to classify churches as “nonessential.” In June of that year, the CDC issued guidelines on how governments should respond in the event of widespread contagion.

“The collaboration of faith-based agencies with public health agencies will be essential in protecting the public’s health and safety if and when an influenza pandemic occurs,” it reads.

Fennoy said she could not comment on how police would deal this Sunday with the church, if at all, but the department statement said follow-up investigations of complaints on gatherings “will be conducted by our VICE team, who may shut down an establishment if it is found to be in violation.”

Police Commissioner Michael Harrison did not comment specifically on the Friendship Baptist situation, but he said Tuesday that the department is prepared to enforce the stay-at-home order. So far, he said, most people are following the governor’s order.

“When we find that people are not voluntarily complying, then the instructions will be to make a physical arrest," he said. “We are working very hard in a proactive way to get voluntary compliance.”

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Gwynn is no stranger to taking strong public positions. Days after the death of Baltimore resident Freddie Gray from injuries suffered while in police custody in 2015, in his role as alliance president, he was one of the first public figures to call for the resignation of then-Commissioner Anthony W. Batts.

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“We can no longer distinguish who is in charge of the police department’s day-to-day operations,” said Gwynn, who called Gray’s death “untimely and unnecessary.”

Then-Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, a Democrat, fired Batts three months later.

Gwynn said he believes his church is being singled out as an example at a time when government is asserting new powers as part of its effort to limit the spread of COVID-19.

Gwynn added he has contacted Baltimore police several times seeking an explanation for last Sunday’s events, but no one has replied to his calls.

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