Many churches in the United States (perhaps most) have been largely silent and have complied with COVID-19 church attendance restrictions. Meanwhile, for the first time ever church membership in the United States dropped below 50%. Over the past year, the COVID-19 restrictions have been a contributing factor in this general long-run decline. In addition to supporting the spiritual life of attendees, churches also represent a critical social function…churches are where many connect and engage with others. And yet over the past year many churches have offered online services only.
As described by Dr. Jay Bhattacharya in this interview, there are significant consequences of lockdowns for physical and emotional health that we must consider and acknowledge. For example, over the past year contemplation of suicide by our youth spiked to 25%. That is, one in four youth thought about taking their own lives this past year! Churches across the country have made a choice to comply with lockdown orders, discounting the consequences of closing their doors, not to mention leaving unchallenged important questions about the constitutionality of limiting/prohibiting religious gatherings. I would be remiss not to mention that there is a significant body of research showing that lockdowns are largely ineffective at reducing the transmission of COVID-19 or other infectious diseases. For the most part, church leaders have not challenged authorities on any of these policies…I think to the detriment of those they serve. Aside from the implications for the spiritual well-being of church attendees, it is important to ask these questions: How many churchgoers died by suicide in the wake of church closings? How many elderly church members died prematurely due to isolation and despair? How many would be church attenders turned to self-medication through alcohol or drugs?
One church that has challenged the lockdown orders, is Harborview Fellowship in Gig Harbor, Washington. In Washington, as the COVID crisis unfolded Governor Inslee imposed restrictions on church attendance, permitting outdoor services of 100 people and indoor services the lower of 25 percent capacity or 50 attendees. Over the past year, “guidance” on in-person church meeting restrictions have been revised several times. Leaders of Harborview Fellowship made a decision to challenge the Governor’s “guidance” for which the Governor indicated there would be enforcement with penalty. When the case went to court, it was dismissed because the Governor stated that he had no intention of enforcing the “orders”. Specifically, court documents confirmed that the Pierce County Sheriff’s Department “has released multiple statements confirming it does not intend to punish people for violating the proclamation but only educate them on the proclamation and the dangers of COVID”. In the court of law, the Governor stated that he has no intention of enforcing church attendance restrictions. Yet Governor Inslee continues to promulgate “orders” regarding church attendance and “restrictions” while simultaneously failing to communicate that he has no intention to enforce them (per the filings on his behalf by the Attorney General in the court case dismissal). You may read a summary of the case here.
NOTICE TO THE CHURCHES OF WASHINGTON STATE: You are free meet and worship in ways you deem to be safe and in the best interests of your congregations. However, boldness and courage will be required to take such action. Based on the Governor’s representations in the Harborview case dismissal, there will be no enforcement, penalty or legal action taken against you. (Note: I am not a lawyer cannot offer legal advice; thus, it is important to review the case before taking action.) If you are a church leader in Washington State and would like to speak directly with the leadership at Harborview Fellowship, please contact them at firstname.lastname@example.org.