When city officials arrived at a packed Baltimore church that had repeatedly violated coronavirus rules and ignored their efforts to shut it down, at least one police officer planned to try to disperse the crowd.
But after about half an hour of debate, which played out on body camera footage obtained by The Baltimore Sun, law enforcement decided to stand down and let the service continue on that Wednesday evening in March.
And for two weeks, Greater Grace World Outreach Church in Northeast Baltimore continued to hold services without requiring masks and social distancing before agreeing to follow the city’s guidelines. It was fined a total of $100 because someone removed the health department’s closure sign from a church door.
The body camera footage, and the back-and-forth between the church and the city that followed, highlight the complexities faced by officials attempting to enforce coronavirus rules, especially at places of worship.
When they approached the church that day, health and law enforcement officials were met by an armed security guard clad in a black bulletproof vest emblazoned with the word “Police” in bright yellow letters. As they attempted to enter the building, the guard blocked the doorway.
“I just wanted you to wait for my supervisor,” the church guard said. “Can you folks please wait a second? Do you have a search warrant?”
“We don’t need a search warrant,” a police officer replied. “This is the health department. This is the housing department. They have every right to go into your business. Please step aside.”
Moments later, the church’s chief of operations, Peter Taggart, came outside to confront health officials. They asked him to clear the building.
“I’m not going to do that,” Taggart said. “We’ve got a message going on. We’re worshipping God in there.”
What began as a tense confrontation March 17 would slowly fizzle out as police who arrived on the scene decided against forcing an evacuation. Church officials did let a few inspectors enter the building, but simply to document their violations.
The church continued disobeying the health department for two weeks, operating without requiring face masks or social distancing in its large auditorium, all the while livestreaming sermons, baptisms and plays. And on those livestreams, the church’s pastor, Thomas Schaller, frequently railed against mask use and other restrictions in religious settings, saying he was “done” with the virus.
But Greater Grace, which has 1,500 members and hundreds of affiliate churches across the globe, submitted its required reopening paperwork in late March and is back in good standing with the city. Greater Grace officials declined to comment for this article.
A health department spokesperson said that in addition to the fine for the sign removal, the church was given a $500 citation for masking and distancing violations. But it was not pursued. The department didn’t take the matter to court because the church complied and submitted its safety plan. The agency prefers to avoid fines when possible, instead endeavoring to educate businesses and other entities about how to prevent the spread of disease, the spokesperson said.
There haven’t been any complaints against the church since, the spokesperson said.
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The encounter illustrates how enforcing restrictions at places of worship can cause authorities to balance concerns about religious freedom with those involving health and safety. Such debates have reached the U.S. Supreme Court. In December, it ruled 5-4 that New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s executive order limiting the size of religious gatherings in certain areas with high infection rates was unconstitutional. The court ruled similarly in a case out of California in April.
So far, the cases that have gone before the Supreme Court have mainly focused on capacity restrictions in places of worship, said Mark Graber, a constitutional law professor at the University of Maryland law school. The court has taken issue with restrictions that treat churches, synagogues and mosques differently than other indoor venues. But Baltimore’s masking and distancing guidelines generally applied across indoor establishments.
One of the first officers on the scene at the church that evening in March came as part of the “social club task force,” a cohort of housing, health, liquor board and law enforcement officials that traditionally patrols bars, clubs and restaurants.
“We are at a standoff with a fake police force here,” the officer says into his phone after speaking with Taggart. “They’re refusing to let us inside, so I’m going to have to call the district to have them bring me out some troops so we can empty out this church.”
But after more officers arrived, a consensus emerged: Removing worshippers from the church was untenable, and legally thorny.
“There’s obviously a lot going on nationwide, and I won’t even pretend to understand the legalities of all of it,” a lieutenant on the scene told Taggart. “I don’t think anybody knows the legalities of it. I think it’s something that we’re crossing as a bridge.”
“We’re not forcibly removing 300 churchgoers,” the lieutenant said later.