A Dundalk church says it will defy Baltimore County’s orders limiting crowd size after its pastor was recorded tearing up a cease-and-desist order threatening to fine the church $5,000 for reopening its doors.
In a video clip posted to Twitter, Calvary Baptist Church’s pastor, Stacey Shiflett, can be seen tearing up a letter from county officials telling him he needs to limit the size of his crowds to 10 people or fewer or face a potential $5,000 fine.
While Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan lifted restrictions May 13 on religious gatherings, allowing them to reopen at 50% capacity, he also let counties decide whether they wanted to implement additional restrictions on a county-by-county basis.
Baltimore County was one of several counties to do so, with County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr. telling religious institutions that they must remain closed because a lack of sufficient testing made it unsafe to reopen.
Shiflett and the Calvary Baptist Church held a service Saturday, prompting the cease-and-desist letter. Now the pastor is claiming that neither Hogan nor Olszewski had the right to shut down churches and will continue to hold services in defiance of the county executive’s order.
“God tells us how to worship him. Nobody else gets to do that,” Shifflett says in the clip.
In a statement on the church website, Shiflett wrote that “CHURCH IS ESSENTIAL - and to say otherwise is an offence to Almighty God and to every churchgoer in this state.”
Shiflett wrote that he and “scores of other pastors across the Northeast corridor” had decided earlier this month to reopen their doors this coming Sunday, “with or without the State’s consent.” He did not mention which other institutions plan to reopen.
He declined to be interviewed, and instead pointed to his statement online. In it, he says any action limiting the size of crowds congregating for religious services is unconstitutional and that “freedom of religion ... did not become obsolete with the arrival of a virus.”
In a statement, county spokesman Sean Naron said the county “has no desire to prevent free exercise” of religion.
“[The] Baltimore County Executive’s Order was issued to prevent a clear and present danger of harm — the spread of COVID-19 through close proximity of the public in large gatherings, such as at a church service,” Naron wrote.
Breaking News Alerts
Religious services have been a point of contention across the country as governors balance executive orders limiting public gatherings meant to keep people from spreading the coronavirus with some religious organizations’ desires to continue to hold services inside their facilities.
The Archdiocese of Baltimore outlined a plan earlier this month to have Catholic churches in the region gradually reopen, but the first two steps of the church’s plan still call for crowd restrictions or social distancing measures that would limit people being in close proximity to one another.
Other states have allowed for religious gatherings to continue, which has drawn praise from religious groups but also criticism from health experts who say it’s still too early to have large congregations of people back together while the pandemic is still ongoing.
While Hogan, a Republican, and Olszewski, a Democrat, have drawn the ire of Shiflett for not allowing religious institutions to reopen, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican, faced his own wave of criticism from public health officials when his stay-at-home order didn’t bar churches from having mass gatherings.
Several outlets are reporting that the administration of President Donald Trump, a Republican, withheld written guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that would’ve recommended limiting crowd size and practicing social distancing at places of religious worship.
The Washington Post reported that several White House and coronavirus task force officials “did not want to alienate the faithful” or put restrictions on various standard religious practices, such as passing around the communal plate or hymnals.
In his post, Shiflett wrote that “there is not another place in Dundalk that will be cleaner and safer for you and your family than Calvary Baptist Church."