VAIB Letter to Governor | Governor’s Guidelines for Churches
Released: Tuesday, May 12, 2020
Churches may resume in-person meetings after May 15!
On Friday, May 8, Governor Ralph Northam updated the guidelines for COVID-19 restrictions in Virginia. These guidelines, found here, will go into effect after Friday, May 15. But on Monday, May 11, the governor retracted opening churches in Northern Virginia until metrics are met for consistent declining numbers of coronavirus cases.
The steering committee has considered the issue and believes it is time for all churches that desire to open to be allowed to do so on May 17. Does this mean every church should immediately begin having regular, in-person services and activities? No. Numerous pastors have contacted me stating their churches would not begin in-person services on May 17 but have a graduated plan to reopen later. Each church needs to do what it believes is best for the safety of its members.
I want you to know that the steering committee has been working for weeks on whether or not to address the governor directly on this matter. A majority of the members of the committee have determined that now is the time. A letter prepared by legal counsel was mailed on May 12 and is included following this letter. Also included with this letter are guidelines prepared by the governor’s office for churches that plan to reopen. These contain mandatory guidelines and suggested guidelines.
Please understand that the steering committee is concerned that the governor may further restrict the opening of churches before Friday, May 15, but stands firm in its resolve that churches must be allowed to meet as they deem best, according to the religious liberties accorded by God and the U.S. Constitution.
May 12, 2020
The Honorable Governor Ralph Northam
Virginia Office of the Governor
P.O. Box 1475
Richmond, VA 23218
RE: Reopening of Churches and Other Religious Institutions on May 17, 2020
Dear Gov. Northam:
We, the members of the board of the Virginia Assembly of Independent Baptists, are respectfully requesting that you remove the restrictions from churches allowing us to begin meeting again, taking precautions for people's health. As we are now in the fourth week of quarantine across the United States, and Easter Sunday is past, our church body needs to begin assembling again. As pastors and churches, we believe it is our right to assemble without government interference.
On April 14, 2020, the U.S. Department of Justice filed in support of a Mississippi church that has come under fire for continuing its drive-in services. The U.S. attorney general released a statement on religious practice and social distancing. The U.S. attorney general stated that the “United States Department of Justice will continue to ensure that religious freedom remains protected if any state or local government, in their response to COVID-19, singles out, targets, or discriminates against any house of worship for special restrictions.” We believe that the mandate currently in place unconstitutionally restricts our freedoms as a church to assemble even when precautions are being taken.
The Department of Justice stated in this brief that “the Free Exercise Clause guarantees to all Americans the ‘right to believe and profess whatever religious doctrine [they] desire.’ Empl’t Div. v. Smith, 494 U.S. 872, 877 (1990). It also protects their right to act on these beliefs, through gathering for public worship as in this case, or through other acts of religious exercise in their daily lives.” The case outlined by the U.S. Attorney General is the following:
- Constitutional Rights Are Preserved During a Public Health Crisis- Even during a public health crisis, constitutional rights must be preserved. There is not a pandemic clause in the Constitution that allows our rights to disappear regardless of the crisis. However, the Constitution does allow the government to act during a national crisis. This line is extremely thin, and it must be continually re-evaluated based on the continued status of the crisis.
- The Free Exercise Clause Prohibits Unequal Treatment of Religious Individuals and Organizations- Churches cannot be treated differently than drive-in restaurants and essential businesses. The categories for nonessential and essential cannot unequally prohibit religious individuals and organizations. This is a growing concern due to standards in place for businesses and restrictions being placed on churches. The government cannot unequally restrict religious individuals or organizations
The Compelling Interest/Least Restrictive Means Test Is a Searching Inquiry- Finally, there must be a compelling interest, and the mandate or order must be the least restrictive means available. Additionally, there must be continued evaluation of both of these tests rather than a one-time inquiry. This searching inquiry continues to ensure that the rights of religious individuals and organizations are not violated.
In accordance with those three areas of concern, we believe that churches in Virginia should be allowed to begin meeting again. As pastors from the Commonwealth of Virginia, we believe that it is time to open the churches back up, and we believe it is time for our congregations to begin meeting safely again. Our churches will begin meeting again at their discretion beginning May 17.
We believe that the following protocols, which we intend to adopt voluntarily, will enable churches and houses of worship to provide a safe and healthy environment for our members and our communities and will prevent the further spread of the CoVid-19 virus.
All congregants, including pastoral staff and greeting teams, should work to maintain physical separation of approximately six feet unless from the same household. Avoid physical contact, including shaking hands.
Announcements and signs should be posted requesting no physical contact and listing appropriate physical separation guidelines
Anyone who has had a fever should stay home.
All children not in the care of their parents should have their temperature checked prior to admission to nursery or children’s programs.
During church services, anyone displaying cold-like symptoms, including but not limited to coughing, excessive sneezing, or cold chills, should be asked nicely to return home to ensure the health of others.
Congregants should be reminded to wash hands regularly. Hand sanitizer should be made available if possible.
Increase regular cleaning of the facilities, ensuring that disinfectant is being used in critical areas such as kitchens and bathrooms.
Request that anyone who has traveled overseas recently remains home from services until symptom-free for at least fourteen days.
If your church has the capability, live stream services to individuals unable to attend due to health concerns.
Encourage people not to attend public services if they are fearful, elderly, immune-compromised, or have a vulnerable pulmonary system.
We would request that you, as Governor, would respect these protocols for churches and houses of worship and that, in addition, you would monitor and prevent any local governmental jurisdictions from placing unequal, unfair or unconstitutional restrictions on religious liberty and worship. You can be assured that the churches represented by this letter will voluntarily adjust their activities in line with the above protocols. Your office can reach our general counsel at The National Center for Life and Liberty at 888-233-6255 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Praying for you and your leadership team during this time,
Rev. Eddy Aliff, Executive Director of VAIB
Dr. Deron Jackson, President of VAIB, Pastor of Heritage Baptist Church, Chesterfield VA
Rev. Paul Mitchell, Vice President of VAIB, Pastor of Wayside Baptist Church, Chesapeake VA
Rev. Joshua Brassard, Pastor of Northern Neck Baptist Church, Callao VA
Rev. David Carroll, Pastor of Sharon Baptist Church, Hampton VA
Rev. Greg Corcoran, Pastor of Battlefield Baptist Church, Warrenton VA
Rev. Carl Goodman, Pastor of Lakeside Baptist Church, Salem VA
Rev. Frank Hall, Pastor of Valley Baptist Church, Stuarts Draft VA
Rev. Ray Haskett, Pastor of Calvary Baptist Church, Colonial Heights VA
Rev. John Hester, Pastor of Calvary Baptist Church, Bedford VA
Rev. Jeff Hill, Pastor of Vision Baptist Church, Ruther Glen VA
Rev. Tim Kyser, Pastor of Open Bible Baptist Church, Chatham VA
Rev. Jeremiah Reamer, Pastor of Victory Baptist Church, Harrisonburg VA
Rev. Heath Spivey, Pastor of Crossroads Baptist Church, Fishersville VA
Legal Counsel: Dr. David Gibbs III, President, National Center for Life and Liberty
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