By Tom Strode
Southern Baptist leaders commended to churches the new federal guidelines for restoring in-person worship gatherings during the COVID-19 pandemic, even as efforts to resolve conflicts between state governments and faith communities continue.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued interim guidelines May 22 that reminded state and local officials to take the First Amendment right of religious liberty into account when they institute reopening policies. No church or other religious group should be called on to enact “mitigation strategies” stricter than those requested of “similarly situated entities or activities,” the CDC said.
Russell Moore, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, said the guidance “seems reasonable and helpful.”
“The tone is, appropriately, not a directive to churches but counsel based on the medical data,” Moore said in a news release. “The CDC guidance is not a blueprint, but it is a prompt to help leaders as they think through what questions to ask.””
Ronnie Floyd, president and CEO of the SBC Executive Committee, said the government should “trust the churches” as it does businesses and other entities, but urged pastors to carefully consider the CDC guidance in determining how to safely reopen their churches.
“Just as the government is trusting others to reopen businesses, sports and entertainment experiences, the government also needs to trust the churches who have been providing care and love for their communities during this crisis,” Floyd said in written comments. “Pastors and churches should understand the CDC guidelines, work within their local contexts and take necessary actions to reopen their facilities in a safe and responsible manner.
“Also in this regathering process, each community of faith will need to operate weekly in a very agile manner to make any needed adjustments.”
What the guidance says
The CDC guidance offers various safety recommendations but stops short of across-the-board mandates. It encourages churches and other faith groups to promote social distancing, to urge the use of cloth face coverings, to increase cleaning and disinfection of objects and facilities, and to reduce the sharing of worship materials such as hymnals.
Moore commended the guidelines, which are available at the CDC website: https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/php/faith-based.html.
“Such counsel is hard to make specific since practices differ so much from congregation to congregation, even within the same religion or denomination,” he said. “Every church I know is working through a staging plan, telling their members what benchmarks they are looking for to know when to re-gather, how they will then phase that re-gathering in, and what steps they will take to ensure safety when they do.
“People want to be confident that when their church reopens every reasonable precaution is taken, and that’s exactly what I see church leaders doing. The CDC guidance will come as a reassurance to many churches that their hard work in planning out the path back to worship is, in most cases, in line with the recommendations of health officials.”
As of 12:30 p.m. EDT May 26, more than 98,400 deaths from COVID-19 and 1.67 million confirmed cases have been reported in the United States, according to Johns Hopkins University.
The overwhelming majority of churches and other religious bodies have abided by government policies during the pandemic. This has resulted in such alternatives as online and drive-in services instead of in-person, corporate worship.