Tuesday, May 26, 2020
May 26, 2020

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Virus limits bring new religious freedom tension

Some faith leaders continue to hold in-person services

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FILE - This Monday, March 30, 2020 file photo shows The River Church in Tampa, Fla. Pastor Rodney Howard-Browne was arrested Monday, March 30, 2020, for violating a county order by hosting a large number of congregants at the church.
FILE - This Monday, March 30, 2020 file photo shows The River Church in Tampa, Fla. Pastor Rodney Howard-Browne was arrested Monday, March 30, 2020, for violating a county order by hosting a large number of congregants at the church. (AP Photo/Chris O'Meara) (Steve Ruark/Associated Press) Photo Gallery

NEW YORK — Despite state and local limits on public gatherings, some faith leaders have persisted in holding in-person services — a matter of religious freedom, they say, as the nation approached its fourth Sunday battling the coronavirus pandemic.

The most high-profile clash over in-person worship — and crowd limits designed to stop the virus’ spread — came in Florida, where Pastor Rodney Howard-Browne was arrested Monday for violating a county order by hosting a large number of congregants at his Tampa church.

Howard-Browne said after his release he would move future worship online, but the county later ended its effort to apply limits on large gatherings to religious services after a statewide order described religious gatherings as essential.

Law enforcement officials in Louisiana and Maryland took separate action this week against pastors who continue to hold in-person services in the face of stay-home orders in most states.

But more than a half-dozen of those state orders provide a degree of exemption for religious activity, underscoring the political sensitivity of the decisions being made by states and localities.

Vice President Mike Pence said this week that churches should not host groups bigger than 10 people, and President Donald Trump said that “my biggest disappointment is that churches can’t meet in a time of need.” But the application of guidance on the ground has raised questions for some faith leaders.

Pastor Alvin Gwynn Sr., of Baltimore’s Friendship Baptist Church, said that police tried to halt services at his church on Sunday even though he had limited in-person attendance to 10 people.

Gwynn said in an interview that he still plans to hold in-person Easter services, citing the First Amendment’s protections for freedom of worship and assembly. Baltimore has “been through a lot” in recent years, said Gwynn, who leads a local ministers’ group that criticized the city’s police department leadership in 2015 following the death of 25-year-old Freddie Gray.

“Which is safer, in the church with potential virus, or go out the door and catch a bullet?” Gwynn said.

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