COLORADO SPRINGS, Col. — During the current coronavirus lockdown, the First Amendment right guaranteeing religious freedom remains under attack. Answering the challenge, Colorado churches are opening this Sunday in defiance of Gov. Jared Polis’s decrees that they remain closed to in-person services. Catholic parishes statewide started to hold in-person masses on May 17, with distancing and other measures in effect. These include not passing the offering plate or using a common cup at communion. Parish priests do have some flexibility in what measures to put in place, and some parishes actually started opening up a week earlier than the rest.
Protestants, too, geared up to hold services this coming Sunday, May 31. That’s Pentecost Sunday on the church calendar. Pentecost commemorates the descent of the Holy Spirit upon the Apostles and other followers while they were in Jerusalem celebrating the Feast of Weeks. The Acts of the Apostles (Acts 2:1–31) documents this event. The symbolism today is clear.
The return of in-person worship on Pentecost seems symbolically appropriate.
In a mid-May, Governor Polis hosted a telephone conference with over 700 faith leaders. During that call, he advised that the State expects churches to abide by “no more than ten people per room” for in-person church services as directed in the State health “Safer at Home” order. He also indicated that the number of people permitted for group gatherings may be increased sometime in June, to perhaps as many as 25 or 50 people or more. This constitutes a clear restraing on religious freedom.
Even worse, while claiming to be opening the state, this update actually proved more restrictive than his original guidance dating from March 26. It allowed Colorado churches to remain open while seeking to maintain social distancing “if possible.”
Suing the governor and other moves supporting religious freedom
As a result of that phone call, there was talk among Colorado churches of suing the governor over those orders. The High Plains Harvest Church actually has sued the governor personally.
Evangelist and leader of Charis Bible College in Woodland Park Andrew Wommack, along with Pastor Mark Cowart of the Church for All Nations in Colorado Springs, penned an open letter to the governor. In it, they announced their intention to resume in-person services on Pentecost.
The assembly of our congregations to worship together is not a luxury. We as pastors and religious leaders are bound by Scripture to come together on the Lord’s day to worship. As the Bible says in Hebrews 10:24-25: “And let us consider one another to provoke unto love and to good works: Not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as the manner of some is; but exhorting one another: and so much the more, as ye see the day approaching.”[emphasis in original]
More pressure on Colorado’s governor
President Roger Schlechte of the Rocky Mountain District of the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod (LCMS), sent a letter to the governor on May 26. Schlechte informed him that of the six states in his district, only Colorado has such restrictions on churches. With restaurants and other businesses opening to 50% capacity on Wednesday May 27, limiting Colorado churches “..not only feels like discrimination, it is discrimination.”
Such discrimination is a violation of the First Amendment freedom of religion clause. Religious freedom is a fundamental right that cannot be violated by government even under emergencies. This holds true unless no other way can be found to address such emergencies and that churches are not singled out.
Pastor Al from the Calvary Worship Center responded to a letter from the El Paso County Health Department two weeks ago. His video appears below.
President Trump weighs in on religious freedom
Perhaps the final straw in this chain of events proved to be President Trump’s statement supporting religious freedom. He issued that First Amendment endorsement during his cabinet meeting held on Thursday, May 26. The president stated that churches, synagogues and mosques were indeed essential and should be opened. He followed that statement the next day with an executive order (EO). It directed the Attorney General to investigate any restrictions put on houses of worship.
The head of the U.S. Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division said Friday that the department supports the High Plains suit. That Colorado suit claims state measures to combat the coronavirus discriminate against houses of worship. In addition, they violate the First Amendment right to religious freedom.
Pastors Wommack and Cowart concluded the following.
We hope that your orders and directives will accommodate our actions, but even if they do not, we will still exercise our constitutional rights to gather in obedience to our Lord’s commands. We are not rebellious or lawbreakers, but, like Peter and the apostles long ago, we must “obey God rather than man.”
— Headline image: Emmanuel Presbyterian Church, located at 419 Mesa Road in Colorado Springs, Colorado.
Property listed on the National Register of Historic Places. By Jeffrey Beall – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0.