Beshear says about 17 churches planning services ‘can probably expect to see us’; religious conservative lobby joins his pleas

Large churches, like the Cathedral of Christ the King in Lexington, do not appear to be a problem.
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By Melissa Patrick
Kentucky Health News

Gov. Andy Beshear said Wednesday that about 17 churches and other entities in Kentucky are still planning to hold gatherings this weekend, despite his order against it and his grave warnings that they will spread the coronavirus and kill people.

He said he hopes they will change their plans, but in case they don’t, he is talking to local officials about what to do. And he got the support of a religiously focused lobbying group that urged churches not to meet.

Beshear said at his daily covid-19 briefing, “Those that want to openly claim that they are still going to be doing these things, knowing they are going to be putting people in harms way, they can probably expect to see us. Now, our hope is that we can still convince everybody to do the right thing.”

Beshear acknowledged the challenge he has placed on people of faith at an important time, whether it be Passover (which began at sundown Wednesday) or Holy Week and Easter, but stressed that it is “crunch time” in Kentucky if the state is to keep the virus and its covid-19 disease from overwhelming the state’s health-care system.

“While I know it will be hard to worship virtually or in other ways, it will save lives and it will mean the people that you normally see in person in church will still be in church months from now,” Beshear said. “It protects your congregations; it protects people around you.”

He added later, “We have scientific evidence and definitive facts that show that these types of services have spread the coronavirus to dozens upon dozens of cases, and that there have been deaths that have resulted from it.”

Beshear spoke on a day that saw Kentucky’s largest number of new covid-19 cases in a single day, 204, with eight more deaths.

Asked if he was asking local officials to block or prevent gatherings, he reiterated that he hoped churches would decide to not meet, but another possibility would be sheriffs and deputies to warn people of the dangers as they arrive. “My hope is that that step would be enough,” he said, “but I’ll consider other steps beyond that if we have to.”

The governor said he has talked to all of the county judge-executives where he thinks there will be services, and they were all willing to act.

He said churches that plan drive-through services need to follow his rules: nobody gets out of the car, cars are six feet apart and don’t pass things, like communion items or offering plates, among cars.

Beshear got some help early Wednesday from a group that promotes conservative, faith-based policies: an open letter and video to churches, asking them to stop holding in-person services.

Richard Nelson, executive director of Commonwealth Policy Center, opened by telling about a pastor friend in Eastern Kentucky who told him of a person in his congregation who unknowingly contracted the virus while traveling out of state, came home and attended church, where it spread to other congregants, one of whom has died. He said that happened before Beshear’s bans on out-of-state travel and mass gatherings.

“This person spread it unknowingly,” Nelson wrote. “But in light of the seriousness of the disease, it’s disappointing to learn that some leaders in the Christian community are resisting the government’s stay-at-home orders as if this is a direct attack on the church and a violation of their First Amendment rights. It is not. The order applies to all large gatherings including sporting events, concerts, and schools. The intention is to slow the spread of covid-19 until a vaccination has been developed.”

Nelson, who lives in Cadiz, said a pastor in northern Christian County told him that he was being pressured to hold church services by some of his members, even though a nearby church in Dawson Springs held a revival that sparked a deadly covid-19 outbreak.

He said others have been critical of the Beshear administrations decision to allow the state’s only abortion clinic, in Louisville, to stay open. “I agree that this is inconsistent with closing all other elective medical centers,” he said. “However, please don’t use this as an excuse to pick a fight with the government and to resist social distancing guidelines. . . .  This is a pro-life position that will positively impact thousands in this moment.”

Nelson told his audience that the two greatest commandments are to love God and to love our neighbors, and “Submitting to our government honors God. Following the stay-at-home order and practicing social distancing to help slow the spread is loving our neighbor. The church isn’t being forced to stop preaching. It is being asked to temporarily cease meeting in person,” adding that many are successfully holding online services.

He closed this way: “So, should you hold in-person church services this Easter Sunday? Simply ask yourself this: Do you want to be remembered as being the conduit that possibly spread a deadly disease throughout a region? Or do you want to be remembered as being a force for good that aided your community in a time of great need?”

The Commonwealth Policy Center says on its website that it is “dedicated to preserving the bedrock values of life, marriage and fiscal responsibility in the Commonwealth of Kentucky. It affirms as stated in the Kentucky Constitution that our civil, political and religious liberties come from God.To that end, it seeks to educate the general public, work for sound public policies, and influence elections on behalf of conservative candidates.”

The Louisville Courier Journal reports on several churches that still plan to hold services, including Maryville Baptist Church in Hillview, in Bullitt County. Its pastor, Rev. Jack Roberts, told the newspaper Wednesday that despite being ordered by the state to cease in-person services “immediately,” he planned to continue with one on Wednesday evening and one on Easter.

“Roberts added that he has a national Christian organization that has several constitutional attorneys ‘that are in the process shortly of filing a lawsuit’ against the Beshear administration. He declined to name the organization,” the Courier Journal reports.

It also reports that Centennial Olivet Baptist Church in Louisville will remain open. The Rev. Dr. Wilbur S. Browning wrote on its website and Facebook page March 22 that “we are taking necessary precautions to maintain the safety of our members and the community.”

“We encourage you to do the things that promote health for you and your family,” Browning said. “This is not a negative reflection on what others of our sister churches have decided, and we pray for their health and well-being in Christ. This is also, however, not a time to shrink back, but to move forward, prayerfully and faithfully in the Lord Jesus Christ, who reminded us that tribulations and suffering would surely come. He promised to be with us always, even to the end.”

The Courier Journal reports in a separate story that Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer is urging congregations of all faiths to halt all service,s including drive-up, despite increasing requests to allow drive-ups.

“People have celebrated Easter together as a tradition for generations, but the coronavirus doesn’t care about traditions. . . . It just wants to infect as many people as possible,” Fischer said at his Wednesday briefing. “And gatherings – whether it’s a Saturday night house party or Easter Sunday worship service – give the virus more opportunities to spread.”

The Pioneer News in Shepherdsville reports on the many different ways the churches in Bullitt County are celebrating Easter without in-person services, and covers Roberts in a separate article.