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March Mania

Minnesota church leaders say they will resume service, with or without Walz's blessing

File photo / Forum News Service

ST. PAUL — Catholic and Lutheran church leaders in Minnesota said Wednesday, May 20, that they would resume in-person worship even as social restrictions put in place to curb the spread of coronavirus remain in effect in the state.

In a news release sent Wednesday evening, a legal group representing the churches' governing bodies for Minnesota said that Catholic and Missouri Lutheran Synod congregations in the state plan to hold services at one-third of their regular church's capacity beginning Tuesday, May 26. The move seemingly puts them at risk of violating aspects of the state's peacetime emergency declaration.

The announcement comes as retailers and other businesses previously deemed non-essential during the coronavirus pandemic continue to reopen under an executive order signed by Gov. Tim Walz last week. While that order allows for limited in-person shopping for the first time in months, it maintains a 10-person cap on church attendance.

In a letter to Walz, officials with the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod in Minnesota wrote that they were disappointed by their exclusion from last week's order and from plans that will see bars and restaurants begin to reopen in June. The governor has been in regular contact with clerical leaders throughout the pandemic, according to religious officials.

"Now that you have deemed it safe to reopen non-critical businesses in Minnesota, we believe that the essential business of caring for the spiritual needs of our flocks with in-person meetings must also resume in a limited capacity," reads the letter, co-signed by Revs. Donald Fondow and Lucas Woodford.

Backing Lutheran church and the Minnesota Catholic Conference is the Washington, D.C.-based Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which describes itself as a "non-profit, public-interest legal and educational institute with a mission to protect the free expression of all faiths," and the multinational law firm Sidley Austin. Catholic and Lutheran churches have pledged to institute "rigorous social distancing and hygiene protocols," according to Becket's news release.

Both the Missouri synod in Minnesota and the state Catholic conference volunteered to suspend in-person service in March just ahead of the initial stay at home order, according to Becket. Unable to worship in person, some churchgoers have turned instead toward online sermon broadcasts.

But limited service offerings just aren't cutting it, officials said.

"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 Bernard Hebda of the Twin Cities archdiocese. "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."

Reached by email late Wednesday, Walz spokesperson Teddy Tschann said the governor will be meeting with archdiocese leaders and state health officials this week for further conversation.

"As the governor has said, this is a challenging situation for him personally and a challenging situation for him as a public official charged with protecting the health and safety of Minnesotans. He remains in routine communication with faith leaders across the state and understands the toll this pandemic is taking on the spiritual health of Minnesotans," Tschann said.