On Wednesday, Minnesota’s Democratic governor unveiled the state’s new timeline for its “Stay Safe” plan, which includes the mandate that places of worship not be allowed to hold any types of services for more than 10 people — whether inside or outside — while simultaneously allowing restaurants to serve up to 50 customers at a time in outdoor dining areas.
The COVID-19 pandemic has resulted not only in a devastating economic crisis in the United States but a massive civil rights debate amid state and local mandates effectively prohibiting American citizens from exercising their constitutional rights, including First Amendment-protected rights of “the free exercise” of religion and the right to “peaceably to assemble” and “petition the government for a redress of grievances.” Several state and local mandates prohibiting “non-essential” entities from operating have ended up including churches, and some officials have even cracked down on churches providing safely socially distanced “drive-up” services.
Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz (D) heaped fuel on the religious freedom fire on Wednesday in his unveiling of the state’s “Stay Safe” plan beginning June 1.
As noted by the Washington Examiner, Walz announced that while restaurants will be able to host up to 50 customers in their outdoor seating areas, churches will remain restricted to serving just 10 congregants at a time, whether indoors or outdoors. The only remaining concession to churches is that they’re allowed to hold “drive-up” services, in which worshippers must remain in their cars and tune in to the message.
The restrictions on the number of people served by churches at one time includes funeral services and weddings.
Speaking about the glaring inconsistency in the state’s policy for restaurants versus places of worship, Walz offered a self-contradictory explanation about the “predictability” of who will show up at the various venues.
“I think, and I’m hearing strongly on this, of trying to figure out how we make that happen because I think the logic behind it, and I think, again, it was the predictability of who’s there,” said Walz, as reported by the Examiner. “But I think you could argue, ‘Boy, I see the same people every Sunday at my congregation and, in fact, the Smiths sat in the same pew every year for 30 years, so we know exactly where they’re at and we know exactly where they are.'”
“I just want to say that I think there is a very strong sense of urgency for us to figure this piece out around churches,” he assured residents. “And I say that about all the businesses, but I do think these pieces of people’s lives — we need to try and get it around. So, Dave, I would just tell you, I think it goes with the predictability piece of it. I will, again, say that I don’t think that it’s perfect, and I think there’s some things that we have to still continue to figure out.”
As detailed in Minnesota’s “Stay Safe” plan page on the state government’s website, in Phase II (starting June 1; end date to be determined), several changes are taking place in which some social distancing measures are eased. Among them are the following:
- Restaurants and Bars: Location: Outdoors; Capacity: 6 ft of distance must be maintained, not to exceed 50 customers; Reservations: Required; Masks: Required for workers, strongly recommended for customers
- Places of Worship, religious services, weddings, and funerals: Indoors: 10 or less; Outdoors: 10 or less, or drive-in services per MDH guidelines
In Phase III, the places of worship will be allowed only 20 people indoors and a maximum of 100 for outdoor services:
- Restaurants and Bars: Indoor dining with capacity restrictions and social distancing requirements [outdoor capacity presumably at least the 50-customer limit outlined in Phase II]
- Places of Worship, religious services, weddings, and funerals: Indoors: 20 or less; Outdoors: 6 ft of distance, max of 100, must follow MDH guidance; Masks: Required for workers and attendees
The problem of the apparent targeting of places of worship has been widespread during the lockdown. In Illinois, several churches have filed a Federal lawsuit challenging Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s “Five Point” COVID-19 plan banning gatherings of more than 50 people for religious services until “Phase 5,” which would be triggered by the creation of “a vaccine or highly effective treatment widely available or the elimination of any new cases,” which may not occur until 2021. As The Daily Wire highlighted, like Minnesota’s plan, Pritzker’s “Five Point” treats places of worship unfairly:
[C]ritics of the plan were quick to point out that while Pritzker’s roadmap allows for individuals to crowd in retailers, restaurants, and even marijuana dispensaries (many of which have never closed, because they are listed as “essential” businesses in Illinois’ coronavirus plans) but creates a de facto ban on the free exercise of religion, particularly when religious services require large gatherings or the sharing of food or drink, or feature practices not considered “orthodox” under Pritzker’s plan.
Critics also suggested Pritzker was looking for a “miracle cure” that may never come.
“While there is always a possibility that some miracle cure may emerge, that is entirely uncertain and should not be the basis for setting policy, especially policy in relation to our communities of faith,” Peter Breen of the Thomas More Society told CNS last week. “[Pritzker] has at least brought churches out of the abyss of ‘non-essential,’ but he has not fully elevated them to the heights of being an ‘essential’ business or operation.”
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