After receiving pressure from the Catholic Church and the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, the state of Minnesota will allow large church gatherings to resume.
As churches continue to battle with state and local governments over whether they can safely reopen as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to wane across much of the country, the Catholic Church and Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod went to the state government of Minnesota with the threat of legal action, having apparently retained a lawyer in the effort.
After contacting the Becket law firm, which specializes in cases of possible infringements on religious liberty, the Minnesota government agreed to allow churches to reopen on Wednesday, May 26, with slight modifications to enact social distancing.
On May 13, 2020, Governor Tim Walz issued an executive order with guidelines for reopening commerce in the State of Minnesota as of June 1.The order allowedmalls, shops, and other retailers—from pet-grooming services to medical cannabis operations—to open their doors atfifty percent capacity.A phased plan for reopening bars, restaurants, tattoo parlors, and salons was also announced. But in-person worship was not mentioned at all. Rather, worship gatherings greater than ten people remained banned—until “TBD.”The Churchessent Governor Walz separate letters on Wednesday announcing that they would be resuming worship services before May 31, Pentecost Sunday.At the same time,the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty and Sidley Austin LLP sent Governor Tim Walz and Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison a legal letter explaining why continuing to keep churches closed would violatethe First Amendment. The governor has now recognized that churches can reopen safely and carefully in the same way as malls and other business operations.
Both Archbishop Bernard Hebda, Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Saint Paul and Minneapolis, and Rev. Dr. Lucas Woodford, President of the Minnesota South District of The Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod were quoted as being thankful to the law firm and state government for allowing worship services to resume.
“We are so pleased that Minnesota decided to reopen churches, without needing to resort to legal action,” said Woodford. We will remain prayerful and watchful, so that this agreement is just the beginning of a return to full, in-person worship.”
“We are grateful that Governor Walz entered into respectful dialogue with us, recognized the spiritual needs of our faithful, and agreed that it is possible to resume worship services safely and responsibly,” Hebda added.
While worship services are resuming in Minnesota, the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod is still lobbying Illinois for the same religious liberty, beseeching help from Attorney General Bill Barr in their effort.
Rev. Dr. Matthew C. Harrison, President of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, published a letter the church sent to Barr, explaining in the church’s view, the Illinois plan to open, that will limit public gatherings to 50 people until a vaccine is developed, is a violation of the First Amendment.
“We write briefly to call your attention to the ‘Restore Illinois’ plan of the honorable Governor J. B. Pritzker,” Harrison wrote in the letter. “Several aspects of the plan, however, appear unreasonable. Worse, they appear to us to fail the ‘least restrictive means’ test for government limitations on First Amendment rights in times of emergency.”
National File will continue to track stories of religious liberty in the post-COVID-19 world as they unfold.