Religion & Liberty Online

Minnesota religious leaders resist Gov. Walz’s ban on church gatherings

As Minnesota prepares for its next phase of reopening—which includes malls, casinos, salons, restaurants and bars—local churches have grown frustrated with the lack of clarity and guidance on the expectations for religious communities and houses of worship. Now, given Gov. Tim Walz’s indefinite extension of the ban on gatherings of 10 or more people at church services, several of the state’s religious leaders are pushing back.

Leaders from the Minnesota Catholic Conference and the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod in Minnesota say they will begin hosting in-person services at 33 percent capacity on May 26—with several evangelical congregations quickly following suit. Citing the state’s increasingly arbitrary rules and the governor’s unwillingness to entertain their detailed social-distancing proposals, they argue the state is no longer using the “least restrictive means of achieving the desired end.”

The leaders are represented by the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which sent a letter to Gov. Walz and Attorney General Keith Ellison on Wednesday, informing them of the reasons behind the resistance.

“In singling out religious assemblies for special and disfavored treatment, Minnesota has violated the protections afforded religion under the federal and state constitutions,” writes Becket’s Eric Rassbach,” noting the First Amendment’s Free Exercise Clause, and the state’s failure to create laws that are neutral and pass the strict scrutiny test.

As the letter goes on to explain, their resistance is not out of reckless disregard of the seriousness of the virus, but a desire to more holistically respond to their congregations’ growing needs—physical, spiritual and otherwise:

The [Minnesota Catholic Conference and Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod in Minnesota] Churches have been—and remain—leaders in protecting public health. They suspended in-person worship services voluntarily, and well before any of your stay-at-home directives required them to do so. As a result, for the past nine weeks, their congregations have not known the spiritual, mental, and social benefits that come from personal worship. Even with that loss, the Churches and their members have continued to follow public health guidance. Their religious convictions have spurred them to provide front-line care to those most vulnerable to COVID-19— from comforting those in dying moments with the anointing of the sick, to urging assistance to at-risk prisoners, to advocating for increased federal assistance to schools…

Now that you have determined that current circumstances allow the partial reopening of almost every “critical” and “non-critical” Minnesota business with appropriate safeguards, there is no valid, non-discriminatory reason to continue the blanket closure of churches. To the contrary, basic equality and honest science—not to mention the special solicitude afforded to religious freedom under both the federal and Minnesota constitutions—require the end of this discriminatory policy and restoration of desperately needed in-person worship.

In a corresponding joint letter to congregants, Minnesota’s seven Catholic bishops go beyond the more practical and legal arguments, outlining a range of theological and philosophical reasons for a wise and restrained reopening of churches in a time of crisis.

“The human cost to this pandemic has been extraordinary, not just in terms of lives lost to the virus but the rapidly growing problems of job loss, depression, crime and violence, and substance abuse,” they write. “As Pope Francis has said, the church must be a field hospital, ministering to all, but especially the poor and vulnerable. He has cautioned that overly drastic measures that limit church life will have a disproportionate impact on ‘the little ones’ and those who have no one to rely on.”

With a heavy emphasis on the importance of following safety protocols and “taking all reasonable precautions”—while also recognizing the reality of differing opinions, preferences and health risks across various parishes—the letter advocates for “responsible worship in service of the common good.”

While some religious opponents of the lockdowns have resisted such language—with the First Things editor ridiculing the supposed “cowardice” of those who wear masks and take other precautions—the bishops make a point of noting their agreement and alignment with the state’s overall guidance for containing the virus’ spread. As noted in the Becket letter, their proposals to reopen include far stricter protocols than those imposed on restaurants and retail businesses, and are “based on current guidance issued by the World Health Organization, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and other public health authorities.”

As their letter goes on to emphasize, their church buildings originally closed not because of government edict, but out of their desire to protect the health of their congregants and the broader community and state. Now, however, “circumstances have changed,” they explain, “as confirmed by the Governor’s decision to end the Stay-at-Home order and allow more commerce”:

It is now permissible for an unspecified number of people to go to shopping malls and enter stores, so long as no more than 50 percent of the occupancy capacity is reached. Big-box stores have hundreds of people inside at any one time, and the number of goods that are being handled and distributed in one store by many people—stock staff, customers, cashiers—is astounding. Workers are present for many hours per day, often in close proximity. There is no state mandate that customers wear masks in those malls or stores, wash their hands consistently, or follow any specific cleaning protocol. In these circumstances, and given the well-researched protocols that we have proposed (and that are being followed successfully elsewhere in our nation) how can reason require us any longer to keep our faithful from the Eucharist?

We are blessed to live in a nation that guarantees the free exercise of religion. This right can only be abridged for a compelling governmental interest, and only in a way that is narrowly tailored to be the least restrictive means of achieving the desired end. That is why a large majority of states now allow in-person religious services, including many states that had previously suspended in-person religious services. We think that the executive order issued last Wednesday fails this test. An order that sweeps so broadly that it prohibits, for example, a gathering of 11 people in a Cathedral with a seating capacity of several thousand defies reason. Therefore, we have chosen to move forward in the absence of any specific timeline laid out by Governor Walz and his Administration. We cannot allow an indefinite suspension of the public celebration of the Mass.

Such opinions and actions are sure to inspire plenty of controversy, particularly in light of the more recent declaration by President Trump that governors ought to immediately re-open, regardless of any prior hesitations.

These particular leaders certainly don’t represent the total consensus of faith communities in Minnesota, as evidenced by other pastors who are beginning to chime in with their own differing approaches, but they do offer a model for wise resistance.

This was not a rash decision, and it comes after extensive and sincere efforts to engage with government officials and comply with the law, wherever possible. Their arguments are made with careful consideration of public health risks and protections of personal freedoms alike—a balance we’d all do well to emulate.

Yet while the constitutional case for principled resistance seems to get stronger by the day, we should note that just because we have a right to ignore or resist the lockdowns, it does not necessarily make it wise or prudent or loving to do so, whether as a matter of public health, public solidarity or basic Christian witness. Churches that decide to stay locked down for indefinite periods of time are making those decisions based on their own communities and their own interpretations of events—much of it rooted in care and concern for their neighbors. In making those decisions, they ought to be celebrated, not scorned with accusations of cowardice or complacency or “forsaking the assembly” of the saints.

In the days and months ahead, each church will need to weight complex sets of values, risks and commitments for their specific congregations and communities, and there should be room for charitable disagreement and diversity of action, even when (in most cases) there is likely an underlying unity of belief. Our churches have many distinct missions, priorities, voices and witnesses, and this is a feature, not a bug, of civil society—particularly in times of crisis such as this.

Such diversity allows us to scale up our religious gatherings and community events in “stops and starts,” not according to the arbitrary whims of distant leaders, but at the pace and with the wisdom of local, freely associating communities of faith. It allows us to more readily adapt our institutions and actions to the needs and risks that we, ourselves, are encountering. In terms of battling the virus and the many side effects of the lockdowns, the practical wisdom and spiritual discernment of diverse and compassionate communities of faith is an essential tool.

Once we recognize this, we begin to see what our religious liberty is actually for—not a license for reckless behavior or self-focused pronouncements of “our right to live as we please,” but an opportunity to use our God-given creative potential to better love our neighbors and serve the needs of our communities in peace-producing ways.

As Minnesota’s religious leaders begin their stand-off with the governor, we can pray that we get a little closer to such a balance.

Joseph Sunde

Joseph Sunde's work has appeared in venues such as the Foundation for Economic Education, First Things, The Christian Post, The Stream, Intellectual Takeout, Patheos, LifeSiteNews, The City, Charisma News, The Green Room, Juicy Ecumenism, Ethika Politika, Made to Flourish, and the Center for Faith and Work, as well as on PowerBlog. He resides in Minneapolis, Minnesota, with his wife and four children.