(The Center Square) – California entered phase 2 of its reopening plan Friday, but that excluded houses of worship being able to hold in-person services. Regardless, several thousand church leaders say they plan to reopen by May 31 no matter what the governor says.
California Church United, a network of 3,000 California churches, representing 2.5 million members, announced it plans to open May 31, instead of waiting until the state implements phase 3, which includes allowing modified reopening of houses of worship.
Many churches are reopening nationwide on May 31, a date specifically chosen because it falls on the Day of Pentecost, a significant date on the Christian calendar. Some plan to open Sunday, May 10.
“Our churches are part of the answer, not part of the problem,” Danny Carroll, senior pastor at Water of Life Community Church, said at a news conference held at the Water of Life mega church in Fontana, Calif.
“We're an essential part of this whole journey and we've been bypassed ... kicked to the curb and deemed nonessential," he added.
Gov. Gavin Newsom acknowledged the work of the faith community committed to helping the homeless, seniors and the poor during his Thursday news conference.
“Our fear is simply this,” Newsom said. “Congregations of people from far and wide coming together in a closed space at a large scale remains a point of concern and anxiety for us. We are working on guidelines for physical distancing and working with faith leaders talking about unique conditions in their own facilities. Nothing is etched in stone.”
The fear doesn’t appear to be based on the data the state is reporting, critics note. As of May 8, 62,512 confirmed cases of COVID-19 have been reported in the state, representing .0015 percent of the state’s 39.5 million people. Among them, 2,585 people, or .00006 percent of the population, have died.
Matt Brown, pastor of Sandals Church in Riverside, decried the governor’s decision to deem churches “nonessential.”
"He didn't ask us. He overstepped and he's overreached," Brown said. "And he needs to step back and he needs to declare that the church is an essential part of what we do as Americans, as what we do as Californians.”
Jim Doman, pastor and founder of Church United, asked, "How can the church not be essential?,” referring to the numerous ministries that churches are involved in.
After two months of being closed, the nonprofit organization Liberty Counsel has called on churches nationwide to open. It launched ReOpen Church to provide resources for houses of worship.
The organization suggests that churches consider reopening with a range of service options, including reduced seating inside, offering parking lot services and continuing with online worship videos for those who are unable to attend or who fall into a higher risk category.
ReOpen Churches points to the Trump administration’s guidelines for reopening America.
“The lockdowns have closed churches at a time of greatest need, and they must reopen to meet the burgeoning needs of the community,” Liberty Counsel founder, chairman, and senior pastor Mat Staver said. “Churches are now more essential than ever to bring comfort, hope, and help to the people they serve. Each church is different and each one must assess when and how best to reopen.”
The site also provided resources for churches, including Rights of Churches to Meet for Religious Services, safety measures to follow, and other free resources.
“Houses of Worship across the state are facing discrimination,” Harmeet Dhillon, CEO of the Center for American Liberty, said. The center has filed numerous lawsuits against the governor challenging the constitutionality of the stay-at-home order.
The center created an online petition for citizens to voice their opposition to the governor. In part, it states, “We demand that Governor Newsom and Attorney General Becerra reclassify Houses of Worship as 'essential', provided that they practice the same social distancing and safety measures expected of other essential institutions.”
Newsom said, “I take very seriously those concerns about people of faith and I’m very sensitive to those who want to get back to church. But the health of those communities is foundational.”
The underlying problem, critics maintain, lies in the state’s refusal to deem houses of worship – and the practice of religious freedom – as essential.
"Churches have always been essential, now more than ever, whether government recognizes them or not. They've been discriminated against with these orders," Staver told Fox News.
A growing number of sheriffs also have said they will not enforce the state or local orders. The latest is Riverside County Sheriff Chad Bianco. His remarks before the County Board of Supervisors this week recorded on video have since gone viral on social media.
"It's time to get back opening up our businesses and letting our people do what our normal business activities are," Bianco told Fox News. "And, you know, you just can't arrest somebody for going out and exercising in public or not wearing a mask. You know, at the same time they are trying to force me to release real criminals from jail. They want me to make criminals out of law-abiding citizens that are, you know, trying to support a family. It doesn't make sense anymore."