What is going on between our churches and Governor Walz? Why have our churches announced that they are ready to defy the governor’s church shutdown orders?

You may be helped by starting with this news story from KSTP:

Next, you may want to read the letter from our Lutheran district presidents, but I will summarize.

On May 8th, the Minnesota North and South district presidents of the LCMS, together with presidents of the ELS, WELS, Free Lutherans, and Lutheran Bretheren, and Roman Catholic Bishops sent a letter to the Governor laying out plans to reopen churches under protocols designed by a group of medicial experts and theologians at the Thomistic Institute that have already been successfully implemented in other states and countries. The protocols were sent to receive feedback before we would implement our plans.

I personally spoke with our district president and a staff member at the Minnesota North District on Monday. The governor’s office did not respond to the letter in any way. Instead, last week’s announcement of his new Executive Order EO-56 he outright forbade worship services indoors or outdoors with attendance greater than 10 and announced added penalties including extensive fines and imprisonment for up to 1 year.

Yesterday, at his press conference, he indicated that these restrictions on worship services will continue for an indefinite period of time. Even as restaurants are allowed to have 50 dining outside churches are limited to 10. Governor Walz was asked about this and he fumbled around trying to come up with an answer. The answer he gave seems to admit the inequity and undermine his position, as KSTP reports:

“I confess on this one,” the governor said. “That we struggle on some of these and there is not a perfect answer. I think the logic behind it…. was the predictability of who’s there, but I think you could argue, boy, I see the same people every week at my congregation and the Smiths sat in the same pew every year for 30 years so we know exactly where they’re at, we know exactly where they are.’ I just want to say I think there is a very strong sense of urgency to figure this piece out around churches.”

https://kstp.com/coronavirus/walz-says-phased-plan-to-reopen-restaurants-bars-barbers-shops-and-salons-will-go-into-effect-june-1/5736107/?cat=1

This leaves us with little choice. We are asking for equal treatment, not special treatment. Moreover, there are not explicit constitutional guarantees given for other sectors of public life that are being given greater freedom than churches. What exact course our congregation will take is yet to be determined.

You can listen to President Woodford, Archbishop Hebda and counsel from Becket in this press call:

Finally, here is a word of encouragement from President Woodford:

Press Release from Becket, the Legal representation for the Minnesota Districts of the LCMS, ELS, WELS and Minnesota Catholic Dioceses

Minnesota churches tell Governor Walz they are resuming in-person worship services
Not waiting for Governor to change executive order
WASHINGTON – The Minnesota Catholic Conference and The Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod in Minnesota sent Governor Tim Walz separate letters today announcing that they would be resuming worship services on May 26 despite Governor Walz’s current COVID-19 executive order which allows retailers to operate at 50 percent capacity but caps church worship services at ten people. Governor Walz’s latest re-opening order allows the Mall of America to open its doors to those seeking retail therapy but disallows churches from providing spiritual healing to their congregations. At the same time, The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty sent Governor Tim Walz and Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison a legal letter explaining why continuing to keep churches closed violates the First Amendment. Also representing the Catholic and Lutheran Churches is global law firm Sidley Austin LLP.

On May 13, 2020, Governor Tim Walz issued an executive order with guidelines for reopening commerce in the State of Minnesota. The order allows malls, shops, and other retailers to open their doors at fifty percent capacity, allows businesses—from pet-grooming services to medical cannabis operations—to resume in-person operations, and even announces a phased plan for reopening bars and restaurants, but explicitly leaves in place bans on in-person worship services for more than ten people. Even Minnesota casinos are reopening starting May 26. After weeks of dialogue with Governor Walz to try to achieve equal treatment for houses of worship, today the Catholic and Lutheran Churches announced that they would resume worship services for their congregations at thirty-three percent capacity on Tuesday, May 26, with Pentecost Sunday, May 31, as the first day of Sunday services. The churches have committed to instituting rigorous social distancing and hygiene protocols to prevent the spread of coronavirus.

“Darkness and despair have taken hold of so many of our fellow Americans in the face of the economic and social hardship of the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Archbishop Hebda. “Faith has always been a source of comfort and strength and now more than ever it is of the utmost importance that we are able to meet the spiritual needs of our community.”

Since the beginning of Minnesota’s stay-at-home order suicide hotlines have seen spikes in calls as high as 300 percent in parts of the State, as well as a 25 percent increase in calls about domestic violence. Millions of Americans seek comfort and strength in their faith communities, which also serve as safe spaces for victims of domestic violence and those suffering with addictions. 

“Throughout this crisis, we have been committed to modeling Christ’s love by protecting people from the spread of illness. That’s why it is so disheartening that the Governor has subordinated our spiritual well-being to the economic well-being of the State,” said Rev. Dr. Lucas Woodford, president of the Minnesota South District of The Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod. “Now that the State has deemed the risk of spreading coronavirus low enough to reopen non-essential business, we respectfully believe that it is our right and duty to safely resume public ministry to the faithful even without the support of the Governor.”

In March, well before statewide stay-at-home orders came into effect, both the Minnesota Catholic Conference and The Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod voluntarily suspended in-person worship services to preserve the health and safety of their communities. On May 7, and again on May 16 the churches presented Governor Walz with proposed protocols for resuming in-person worship services in line with the recommendations of the World Health Organization and United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
 
“If malls, casinos, liquor stores, bars, and restaurants are reopening, why can’t Minnesota churches?” said Eric Rassbach, vice president and senior counsel at Becket.“Our Constitution stands for ‘equal justice under law’ and imposing a special disability on churches is anything but. Governor Walz and Attorney General Ellison should ensure equal treatment for churches and houses of worship—especially because they are crucial to helping our nation overcome this crisis.”
 
The head of the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice yesterday sent a letter to California Governor Gavin Newsom explaining that, under federal law, California could not force houses of worship to lag behind other organizations during the reopening process.

A legal commentary on the governor’s new executive order

I commend to you for your reading and consideration an article from Renee Carlson, General Counsel, True North Legal.

The current executive order has left pastors struggling with the ambiguity of the orders and difficulty of navigating the situation.

I am pleased to find that I am not the only one who has seen this difficulty.

Trust is a Two-Way Street

Worship for May 10, 2020, the Fifth Sunday of Easter (Rogate)

Old Testament Isaiah 12 

You will say in that day: “I will give thanks to you, O Lord, for though you were angry with me, your anger turned away, that you might comfort me. “Behold, God is my salvation; I will trust, and will not be afraid; for the Lord God is my strength and my song, and he has become my salvation.” With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation. And you will say in that day: “Give thanks to the Lord,
call upon his name, make known his deeds among the peoples,
proclaim that his name is exalted. “Sing praises to the Lord, for he has done gloriously; let this be made known in all the earth. Shout, and sing for joy, O inhabitant of Zion, for great in your midst is the Holy One of Israel.”

New Testament: James 1:16-21

Do not be deceived, my beloved brothers. Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change. Of his own will he brought us forth by the word of truth, that we should be a kind of firstfruits of his creatures. Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger; for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God. Therefore put away all filthiness and rampant wickedness and receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls.

GOSPEL: John 16:5-15 

But now I am going to him who sent me, and none of you asks me, ‘Where are you going?’ But because I have said these things to you, sorrow has filled your heart. Nevertheless, I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you. But if I go, I will send him to you. And when he comes, he will convict the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgment: concerning sin, because they do not believe in me; concerning righteousness, because I go to the Father, and you will see me no longer; concerning judgment, because the ruler of this world is judged. “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth, for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. He will glorify me, for he will take what is mine and declare it to you. All that the Father has is mine; therefore I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you.