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In Minnesota, religious leaders ready to defy shutdown order

The weirdest aspect of the debate about reopening America is that Republican governors have been portrayed as murderous ghouls for wanting to jumpstart the economy with reasonable precautions, even though the death toll in their states is significantly lower than in those under Democrats, who want to keep their constituents under their thumbs.

Perhaps the second weirdest thing is the bias against churches in Democratic strongholds. Remember how New York Mayor Bill de Blasio threatened to close churches permanently for failing to abide by his restrictions on gatherings? Or how New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy admitted he never considered the First Amendment right to religious freedom in demanding that houses of worship be closed? 

Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz, a Democrat, also believes churches are just too dangerous to reopen. But that stance is generating blowback from religious leaders. 

The controversy stems from Walz’s executive order, issued May 13, that “continues our plan to safely reopen our economy by allowing even more non-critical businesses to reopen.” 

Those “non-critical” businesses include retailers big and small, including the massive Mall of America in Minneapolis, repair shops and companies that perform in-home services. They may reopen and operate at 50 percent capacity. The order also says bars, restaurants and other places of “public accommodation” can plan to reopen as of June 1.  

Yet Walz’s order retained indefinitely a ban on gatherings of 10 or more people — “even if social distancing can be maintained.” That included faith-based pursuits, which, according to one religious leader, was the first time such a ban had been imposed on religious groups. 

Thus, on Wednesday the shepherds of more than 700 Catholic and Lutheran churches informed the governor that they will welcome back their flocks, despite his order, on May 26.

Writing to the governor on behalf of the six Catholic dioceses in Minnesota, Archbishop Bernard Hebda of Minneapolis noted, “We do not take this step lightly. We sought all along to engage you and your administration in a proactive way, and continue to be willing to do so. It concerns us, however, that we still are without a clear roadmap, metrics, or definite timeline from your administration about a phased re-opening.”

The new executive order, Hebda added, “seems to have taken a step backward, imposing an explicit prohibition on faith-based gatherings where none had existed. Your willingness, at the same time, to allow a ‘click forward’ for other sectors and activities on your dial — many of which cannot be classified as essential as the life of faith — prompts us to consider it necessary to move forward.”

Closing, the archbishop pointed out, “I would like to note that we voluntarily suspended our public worship without anyone’s direction or your executive order. Now, in light of the relevant information available, and based on the public activities that your administration is now allowing, we have concluded that many of our parishes are ready to safely resume Mass, albeit in a limited way, next week. We feel compelled by pastoral need to provide our people with an opportunity to come together on Pentecost, before the Easter season concludes.”

In a statement, Eric Rassbach, vice president and senior counsel for the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, a legal defense group, said, “Our Constitution stands for ‘equal justice under law’ and imposing a special disability on churches is anything but. Governor Walz and Attorney General (Keith) Ellison should ensure equal treatment for churches and houses of worship — especially because they are crucial to helping our nation overcome this crisis.”

It’s beyond time to relax restrictions on houses of worship, and allow ministers to minister again. As one Twitter user put it in replying to Becket’s tweet on the controversy, “When the Lutherans start disobeying you know you are really in trouble.”

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