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Faith leaders: Gov. Hogan is opening churches too soon, risking further spread of coronavirus | COMMENTARY

Is it too soon to reopen churches shuttered because of coronavirus? Some faith leaders believe so.
Is it too soon to reopen churches shuttered because of coronavirus? Some faith leaders believe so. (Baltimore Sun photo by Algerina Perna)

We, as 95 multifaith religious and community leaders in Maryland, are deeply concerned about Gov. Larry Hogan’s May 27th decision to resume indoor gatherings at 50% capacity for worship.

In Maryland’s “Roadmap to Recovery,” released by the state on April 24th, the “low risk” stage of the reopening plan was to include “limited attendance outdoor worship gatherings.” The “medium risk” stage of the plan suggested that, at some point, “indoor religious gatherings” with small groups might be appropriate.The “high risk” stage of the plan included approval for “larger religious gatherings.”

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The roadmap says: “There is no realistic timeline yet from any of the scientific experts for achieving this level, as this requires either a widely available and FDA-approved vaccine or safe and effective therapeutics that can rescue patients with significant disease or prevent serious illness in those most at risk to reach a full return to normal conditions.”

There does not yet exist a widely available and FDA-approved vaccine, nor safe and effective therapeutics for this virus. Returning to indoor public worship now, at the beginning of what ought to be a data-driven and deliberate reopening process, could have potentially devastating consequences for faith communities and all residents throughout Maryland. We collectively reject absolutist arguments and attitudes that present false choices between public health and economic well-being.

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We reject arguments that attempt to disconnect the free exercise of religion from the health and lives of our families and neighbors. We reject arguments that would claim that people of faith have a particular divine protection from the virus. We reject arguments that state (or simply imply) that some lives are less valuable than others or ought to be sacrificed in the name of economic recovery.

Our consideration here is particularly for older individuals, people who are incarcerated, people experiencing homelessness, people of color and people who are undocumented. Many of those people are called “essential” and yet are too often treated as disposable. Indoor religious gatherings that convene large groups of people from multiple households for an extended period of time are particularly dangerous given the virulent nature of COVID-19.

Those groups usually include people who are particularly vulnerable due to their age, weakened immune systems and other preexisting health conditions. They also often include young children who may be silent vectors of the disease and often struggle to practice social distancing. Worship services regularly involve unison chanting, speaking and singing, which have been linked to substantial infection clusters. Central to many worship practices are praying in close proximity to one another, being in physical contact with others and sharing communal meals. What is legally permissible is not always what is in the best interests of our communities within and beyond our houses of worship.

As leaders responsible for the well-being of our congregations, faith communities and neighbors, we consider beginning to gather for indoor public worship at this time to be premature and irresponsible given persistently high numbers of hospitalizations and deaths, and given the lack of a vaccine or proven effective treatment. We urge our clergy colleagues and people of faith to be careful and patient, to follow the recommendations of reputable public health officials and the medical community, and to formulate comprehensive and safe reopening plans specific to their needs.

That will necessarily include ensuring appropriate protective equipment and hand sanitizer are available in each house of worship. We call on the governor’s office to partner with us to ensure that every faith community has access to an adequate stock of these supplies and equipment so all those who wish can worship both freely and safely.

Decisions about returning to different forms of public worship ought to be grounded in science and be guided by a particular concern for those most vulnerable in our society. In all of these things we ought to be motivated by love for our neighbors — our neighbors who might come to worship and be exposed to the virus, and our neighbors who might be put at risk by those worshipers in the broader community. Love for neighbors is the defining social ethic of our faith traditions, and it shapes our response to this pandemic and our consideration about a return to public worship.

We implore our elected officials to be similarly guided by that ethic, to be responsible and responsive partners with us in caring for our communities, and to be consistent in their application of public health expertise to their decision-making on behalf of us all.

Mark Parker (BreathOfGodLC@gmail.com) is the pastor of Breath of God Lutheran Church and Ariana Katz is rabbi of Hinenu: The Baltimore Justice Shtiebl. They write on behalf of nearly 100 faith leaders.

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