The coronavirus tests sacred religious traditions; Gov. DeSantis seeks fine line between safety and freedom

St. Luke's Episcopal Church in Marianna, where the Rev. David Green conducts Sunday services via the parish's Facebook page. Credit: Michael Moline

In the churchyard at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Marianna lie graves dating to the mid-1800s, including those of veterans of the Civil War Battle of Marianna, which was fought on this very ground in 1864.

Rector David Green is thinking about the parishioners who are still walking around, though. That’s why he has no intention of invoking the religious carve-out to the statewide stay-home COVID-19 executive order Gov. Ron DeSantis issued Wednesday, which would appear to throw open churches, synagogues, mosques, and other houses of worship.

“Regardless of what the governor says, our denomination is not doing that,” Green said in a telephone interview.

“This is Palm Sunday, and we’re moving into Holy Week, the most sacred time of year on the Christian calendar. We’re making sacrifices for our neighbors and our friends. Yes, we would like to be together and share community and the body and blood of Jesus Christ, but we’re not doing that. We don’t want to put anybody at risk.”

Neither is David Swanson, pastor of the First Presbyterian Church of Orlando.

“I think that would be wholly irresponsible, and it would be a slap in the face to the community in which we live,” he said.

DeSantis included the worship exemption in the statewide stay-home order he issued following weeks of insisting that local authorities were best positioned to regulate public gatherings.

The order specifically states that it supersedes any conflicting local COVID-related orders, but the governor followed up with a second order, released without fanfare that same evening but posted on his executive orders webpage, underscoring the point.

“This order shall supersede any conflicting official action or order issued by local officials in response to COVID-19,” it said.

“I don’t think the government has the authority to close a church. I’m certainly not going to do that,” DeSantis explained to reporters during a news conference on Thursday.

But the signals from the governor seemed inconsistent. He indicated Thursday that local officials could go beyond his order in some contexts. The example he gave was that jogging is allowed but local governments are free to shut down a running trail.

“We have the baseline. If folks want to do things more, then they can do more in certain situations. We want to work with the local folks. Each region in Florida is very distinct, and some of these things may be approached a little bit differently. I’m happy to work with them about it,” he said.

Then he questioned the extent of local autonomy.

“I don’t know that they would have the authority, quite frankly, to close a religious service. The Constitution doesn’t get suspended here. There’s got to be ways to accommodate. I would tell them, ‘Work with the folks. Work with the rabbis. Work with the pastors to get it right. It’s got to be a collaborative thing.”

It’s not clear what the governor’s action means for Rodney Howard-Brown, the Tampa-area megachurch pastor arrested on Monday after holding Sunday services in defiance of a local order not to. He faces charges of unlawful assembly and violating emergency public health rules.

Officials in the Hillsborough County State’s Attorney Office didn’t respond to a request for comment.

In a statement posted on his website, Howard-Brown argued his The River at Tampa Bay church provides just as essential a service as hospitals do.

“Therefore, we feel that it would be wrong for us to close our doors on them, at this time, or any time. In a time of crisis, people are fearful and in need of comfort and community, more than ever before. Even people who do not attend church regularly, or perhaps never go to church, need to know that there is somewhere for them to go when they need help,” he wrote.

The Florida Phoenix contacted religious leaders across the state for comment on the governor’s order and reviewed websites through which they advise followers. Few are encouraging the faithful to attend services — unless its via livestreams.

Swanson, of the First Presbyterian Church of Orlando, for example, didn’t buy Howard-Brown’s argument for live services.

“I do not believe that he should have been gathering his people, and because he disobeyed a public order he probably should have been arrested,” Swanson told the Phoenix.

God “gave us a brain to use and be wise and to love our neighbor well. By socially distancing and following the prescribed orders of physicians who know what they’re doing and health care professionals, I think we’re showing our love for neighbor.”

In Miami, Roman Catholic Archbishop Thomas Wenski is enforcing social distancing within his parishes. In a notice posted on the diocesan website after DeSantis issued his carve-out, Wenski insisted that his priests do nothing to entice parishioners from their homes — to the extent of barring drive-through confessions, masses, or distribution of palm fronds on Sunday.

He did encourage priests to live-stream services and the faithful to display palm fronds on their doors. “Parishes should still be open to respond to calls from parishioners” and “respond to emergencies,” including visiting the sick in the hospital —if permitted to do so — while taking all needed precautions, he wrote.

In Marianna, the Rev. Green took essentially the same position.

“We’re not having in-person worship service,” he said. Neither is any other church in the Episcopal Diocese of the Central Gulf Coast and, as far as Green knows, nationally. Bishop Russell Kendrick’s order to that effect extends until May 2, Green told the Phoenix.

That means no gatherings of more than 10 people, in accordance with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s guidelines. Clergy confer via Zoom. St. Luke’s conducts Sunday services via its Facebook feed — with Green officiating, his wife handling the Epistle and Gospel readings and a parishioner pointing the camera, all observing the six-foot distance the CDC recommends.

The Rev. Swanson lamented the inability to conduct funerals and visit the sick in hospitals and nursing homes. “There are people who are now much more alone in their suffering than they were before, and that’s a bridge we have not learned to traverse as yet except by phone calls and notes. That’s a particularly hard area for ministry.”

Meanwhile, rabbis affiliated with the Orthodox Union have issued guidelines to their faithful suggesting ways to adjust Passover traditions to the pandemic.

“This year’s public health crisis mandates us to significantly limit all of the above. Our responsibility is to refrain from any non-essential outside interactions, including especially in-store shopping,” the rabbis said.

“If there is a need for truly essential purchases, send one family member only – who is neither ill, vulnerable, nor of known exposure to COVID-19 – as rarely and as briefly as possible,” they said. Shops, meanwhile, “must take substantive steps to minimize crowding, maintain hygiene, and maximize social distancing.”

The National Muslim Task force issued a written statement urging believers to follow social-distancing rules.

“The Task Force recommends to mosques, community centers, schools, and other public centers, that all non-essential gatherings be suspended immediately until further notice,” they said.

Hostility to such restrictions have largely centered on the evangelical Christian community — believers like Howard-Browne. However, dissidents are emerging within the Roman Catholic tradition, as well.

Janet Smith, a retired professor of life ethics at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit, has been circulating a letter urging the bishops to restore access to the sacraments.

“The sacraments are the spiritual ‘Personal Protective Equipment’ of Catholics,” Smith told the Catholic News Service.

“They enable us to work in the field hospital of the sick and dying. During the COVID-19 pandemic, Catholics are being deprived of what is central to our faith — the sacraments. The sacraments are gifts of inestimable value: They open up for us the gates of Heaven and bestow upon us graces that enable us to be loving disciples of Christ our Savior.”

Other congregations plan to open their doors within the CDC constraints.

In Tallahassee, for example, W.B. Holmes, pastor of the Bethel AME Church, said church leaders were mindful that a funeral in Albany, Ga., spun off at least 490 coronavirus infections and at least 29 deaths as of Friday. Yet they planned to hold services Sunday while limiting attendance, according to a report by WFSU-FM.

“We must take this very seriously and minimize our people who will be in the sanctuary and make sure we enforce this six-feet social distancing,” Holmes said.

In Marianna, meanwhile, Green finds that the new rules may actually have extended his virtual congregation.

“We’re actually reaching people who not only can’t go to worship services, we’re reaching people who don’t normally go to church anyway” — some as far afield as Texas and Virginia, he said.

“We’re not even doing home visits. That’s really to protect the people we would be going to visit. A clergy person, we may not be showing signs of the virus but, if we were out there circulating in the community, making visits, and holding worship services — we don’t want to be a Typhoid Mary and transmit the disease.”