Weather Forecast

Close

March Mania

Minnesota church leaders press to resume service as economy slowly reopens

File photo / Forum News Service

ST. PAUL — With Minnesota's stay-at-home order lifted and retailers reopening across the state, religious leaders in the region said Thursday, May 21, that houses of worship need to be given the same opportunity.

Catholic and Missouri Synod Lutheran leaders in Minnesota made that case to the press on Thursday morning, a day after they announced plans to reopen churches for in-person services effective Tuesday, May 26. The move puts them at odds with aspects of the state's ongoing peacetime emergency declaration, which maintains a 10-person cap on church attendance implemented at the onset of the coronavirus pandemic.

But given that limited, in-person shopping is once again being allowed in Minnesota as of this week, officials told reporters, so too should limited, in-person worship. State officials have yet to nail down dates for more robust church openings.

"The steps we are taking have not been entered into lightly. Now that the state has deemed the risk of spreading coronavirus low enough to open non-critical businesses, we believe that we can responsibly and safely allow our communities to open in accordance with accepted public health guidelines," said Rev. Lucas Woodford, president of the Missouri Synod Lutheran Church's district for southern Minnesota.

The Catholic and Missouri Synod Lutheran churches have pledged to hold service at one-third of their normal capacity and implement strict new social distancing and sanitary practices. Pews may be cordoned off or removed to allow for more space, for example, while collection plates and communion materials will not be passed from person to person.

Catholic leaders plan to meet this week with Gov. Tim Walz and state health officials for further discussion, according to Walz spokesperson Teddy Tschann.

State health officials on Thursday said they were still in conversations about allowing religious organizations to come back online but had concerns about the risk of community transmission in those settings as well as about particularly vulnerable populations coming into contact with infected individuals.

“We completely understand the value and the strong desire for reconnection with our faith communities. On so many levels, we’re hearing the frustration of people who feel our guidance is overreacting,” Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm said. “We just do know that church gatherings or religious or faith gatherings can pose a special risk just because of who tends to be in the congregation.”

Kris Ehresmann, Minnesota Department of Health infectious disease division director, said she’d heard from her congregation concerns about reopening and the pressure older parishioners might feel to join in-person worship services despite the health risks."It would be too much of a pull,” Ehresmann said. “We would get people who would be particularly at risk who would want to attend.”

Officials with the Catholic Church and others said they have been in regular contact with the governor's office throughout the pandemic, having voluntarily suspended in-person services ahead of the initial stay-at-home order, and wrote to Walz again this week along with their Missouri Synod counterparts to express disappointment with their exclusion from the executive order allowing retail shops to reopen.

The church leaders said their proposal to reopen at one-third capacity had earlier been rebuffed by the governor's office.

But the matter does not look to be bound for the courtroom for now, even though religious leaders said the emergency restrictions put their First Amendment rights in jeopardy. Eric Rassbach, vice president and senior counsel at the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, told reporters Thursday that the churches hope to settle their dispute without filing a lawsuit, though his firm is willing to sue on their behalf if need be.

"The churches are asking for equal treatment, not special treatment," Rassbach said. Boutiques, restaurants and tattoo shops, he said, all have a "road map for reopening fully, whereas the houses of worships of all faiths have been completely left out of the situation."

Based in Washington, D.C., Becket — a "nonprofit, public-interest legal and educational institute with a mission to protect the free expression of all faiths," according to its website — is one of two firms backing the Missouri Synod in Minnesota and the Minnesota Catholic Conference. Multinational law firm Sidley Austin is the other.

When restaurants and bars reopen in a limited capacity in June, religious officials said Thursday, Minnesotans will again add the ability to satisfy hunger and thirst to their power as consumers. But the plans to reopen those businesses leave spiritually hungry Minnesotans in the lurch, they said, saying the state is prioritizing "retail therapy" over faith and the sacramental rituals that accompany it.

"Being ordered to stay at home may have been necessary to protect public health," Archbishop Bernard Hebda of Archdiocese of Saint Paul and Minneapolis told reporters, "but it came at immense costs. Many have measured those costs economically, physically and mentally but the costs have been spiritual, too."

Hebda said that congregations are riddled with anxiety over the pandemic and its affect on the economy and would benefit from returning to church.

A public letter signed by regional officials with the Evangelical Lutheran Synod, Missouri Synod Lutheran Church, Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Church, and Catholic Church said that their churches may also resume service next week. Reached by phone Thursday afternoon, however, Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran president for the church in Minnesota Rev. Dennis C. Klatt said that plans to reopen have yet to be finalized.

Rev. John Moldstad, president of the Evangelical Lutheran Synod in Minnesota, said in a brief interview Thursday afternoon that while the church has signaled to local congregations that they will be able to worship in person again, he was unsure how many would choose to do so.

The churches are moving to reopen at a time when some lawmakers and business leaders in Minnesota and across the U.S. are calling for an end to restrictions put in place to curb the pandemic. In Minnesota and other states, unrest and economic distress have manifested in the form of protests outside of governor's residences and state capitol buildings.

Despite Becket's reluctance to sue, at least two separate court cases have already been filed as a result of the restrictions. One filed by the Upper Midwest Law Center will be heard in federal court on May 26, the same day that Catholic and Missouri Synod Lutheran churches in the state plan to resume service.

The conservative group seeks a motion to suspend business and religious services in Minnesota on behalf of several churches, small business owners and individuals in Minnesota.

Another suit filed by Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison will be heard Friday, May 22, in Stearns County, where the bar chain Shady's vowed to reopen this week in spite of the fact that dining rooms remain on lockdown. The suit came to be after bar owner Kris Schiffler publicly announced plans to reopen the week of May 18, even though he had previously told Ellison's office he would put them on pause.

State health officials on Thursday said they were still in conversations about allowing religious organizations to come back online but had concerns about the risk of community transmission in those settings as well as about particularly vulnerable populations coming into contact with infected individuals.

"We completely understand the value and the strong desire for reconnection with our faith communities. On so many levels, we’re hearing the frustration of people who feel our guidance is overreacting," Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm said. “We just do know that church gatherings or religious or faith gatherings can pose a special risk just because of who tends to be in the congregation."

Kris Ehresmann, Minnesota Department of Health infectious disease division director, said she’d heard from her congregation concerns about reopening and the pressure older parishioners might feel to join in-person worship services despite the health risks.

"It would be too much of a pull," Ehresmann said. "We would get people who would be particularly at risk who would want to attend."

Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated that a Minnesota official with Evangelical Lutheran Church in America signed a public letter on in-person services. The official is with the Minnesota branch of the Evangelical Lutheran Synod.

Dana Ferguson contributed to this report.