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Catholics and Lutherans in Minnesota plan to buck their state’s governor and reopen churches May 26

Protesters gather outside Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz' official residence Thursday, May 14, 2020, in St. Paul, Minn., to call on him to loosen restrictions imposed across the state because of the coronavirus. (AP Photo/Jim Mone)

Leaders of two of Minnesota’s largest faith groups are planning to resume indoor worship services next week in defiance of the governor’s order, saying it’s “extreme and prejudicial” to put religious gatherings in a reopening category similar to that of tattoo parlors or hair salons and subject them to limits stricter than those placed on retail stores.

In a conference-call news conference Thursday, Archbishop Bernard Hebda, Catholic leader for the state, and the Rev. Lucas Woodford, president of the Minnesota South District of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, said they were fine with restrictions earlier in the pandemic. Now that there is a reopening plan, however, they said they can't accept gathering limits for worship that surpass those affecting places such as the Mall of America.

"Our community members are suffering from financial and social and emotional strain," Hebda said on the call, which was organized by Becket, a religious liberties law firm representing the two groups. "It's our sacred duty to meet the spiritual needs of the suffering."

The vast majority of U.S. houses of worship and denominations have been closed since the pandemic began, though a few outlier congregations made news for defying civil closure orders. But tensions have been building on a bigger scale now that government officials around the country are starting to ease restrictions. Hebda and Woodford wrote Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz, a Democrat, on Wednesday saying they will allow their congregations to gather indoors, at one-third capacity, starting Tuesday.

Teddy Tschann, Walz's spokesman, said in a statement that this is "a challenging situation for [Walz] 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."

Walz's order laid out 16 categories of situations and four phases of reopening. For the first two phases, it called for religious services, including weddings and funerals, to limit attendance to 10 people, inside or outside. Drive-in services are permitted. The next reopening phase allows up to 100 to gather outside and 20 inside.

Those restrictions place religious services in roughly the same category - okay to open, but with severe restrictions - as places such as hair salons and tattoo parlors, which are closed in phase one, but in phase two allowed to hold 25 percent of capacity with six feet of distance. Theaters, sporting events and movie theaters are closed completely in phase three and four. Retail can open at 50 percent capacity, and restaurants can begin seating in phase two with no more than 50 customers.

Eric Rassbach, vice president and senior counsel at Becket, said faith groups have filed roughly 30 legal challenges to state and local officials' reopening plans, the vast majority of them by smaller evangelical churches. The Minnesota case is the most prominent involving larger hierarchical denominations, Rassbach said.

Asked why the denominations decided to announce plans to defy Walz's executive order instead of pursue a legal appeal, Rassbach said the order treats churches "unequally" and is thus illegal.

"If it's illegal, you don't have a duty to follow it," he said.

He said the denominations crafted their own rules based in part on guidance from the state health department and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Their congregations aren't required to reopen but can choose to do so, so long as they stay at 33 percent capacity.

Rassbach said denominational leaders have been in dialogue with state public health officials through the pandemic. He said the governor's office didn't engage with the two groups' efforts to communicate about alternative plans.

A Pew Research poll out May 14 found that 68 percent of Americans were more concerned about the country opening up too quickly while 31 percent said they worried it would come too slow. White evangelicals were about split on the question.

The number of standoffs related to congregation openings have been few but high-profile - and in a few cases disastrous.

A north Mississippi church was destroyed Wednesday and officials launched an arson investigation, following a clash with city leaders over stay-home orders, WLBT-TV reported. Investigators found graffiti in the church parking lot that reads: "Bet you stay home now you hypokrits," WLBT reported.

Coronavirus orders to congregations have varied widely across the country.

The majority of states never had any restrictions on houses of worship, Rassbach said. Some had stringent limits but then lifted them. Others kept strict rules on commerce, but none on religious entities.

The White House has made an effort to push back on restrictions against houses of worship, and The Washington Post reported Wednesday that the CDC had no plans to include religious institutions as it issues reopening guidance to states. The administration has solicited steady input during the pandemic from conservative faith leaders who have wanted as minimal restrictions as possible.

Public health experts told The Post the lack of reopening guidance for religious institutions puts some of the most vulnerable - especially older people - at risk for contracting covid-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus.

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