As some churches prepare to open, two Pennsylvania lawmakers want to prevent the state from restricting religious gatherings during the coronavirus pandemic or any future emergency.
State Rep. Eric Nelson, R-Westmoreland, said religious leaders have been confused about whether churches are affected by state-mandated coronavirus shutdowns.
“Our religious community is very confused. They don’t want to violate a law, but they’re also extremely frustrated,” he said.
Nelson and Rep. Clint Owlett, R-Tioga, introduced House Bill 2530, which would amend the state’s Religious Freedom Protection Act of 2002 to prohibit the limitation of religious gatherings during a state of emergency.
The Rev. Steve Banes, pastor of New Stanton Church, praised Nelson’s bill as a way to prevent state interference in the church, but he believes his church and many others would have shut their doors regardless.
“I understand why the governor initially asked churches not to meet, but I think he was a little bit strong in his ask,” he said. “I think many churches would still comply with a governor’s ask to not meet, because we want to do the responsible thing.”
New Stanton Church has been livestreaming services. A reopening date has not been set.
As Westmoreland and Allegheny counties entered the yellow phase of the state’s reopening plan, churches have approached their own reopenings in different ways.
Some are remaining online-only, with no plans for an opening date. Some have opened, while others plan to.
The Catholic Dioceses of Pittsburgh and Greensburg plan to resume public Masses in June.
Bibleway Christian Fellowship in New Kensington resumed public services last week. The Rev. Mitch Nichols said the church has implemented social distancing and added additional morning services to prevent crowding.
“Churches have been made to appear as if they’re not the kind of places where people should gather, but I’ve seen people gathering on their porches and in their yards with no social distancing,” he said.
However, Nichols said he recognizes the need for safety precautions and hopes any religious freedom bill would take that into account: “I applaud the legislator who is putting forth this bill, but when there is a health emergency, when there is a pandemic, hopefully his bill includes the kind of parameters necessary for people to be safe,” he said.
The state discourages gatherings of more than 25 people in counties in the yellow phase.
The Father’s Heart Ministries in Penn Borough resumed public worship services last week, with social distancing measures in place.
“We want to submit ourselves to the governing authorities as the Bible says, we don’t want to neglect what we’ve been told to do, but we don’t want to be stifled or put in a place where the word of God is being silenced,” said the Rev. Henry Taliercio.
In addition to worship services, Father’s Heart Ministries runs youth services and recovery programs for people with addiction.
“I think it’s ridiculous for the government not to tell the churches what our rights are,” Taliercio said.
The Rev. Cletus Hall of Trinity United Christian Church in Lower Burrell said he has not found the government recommendation onerous.
“I’m not one of these people who says ‘I’m going to meet no matter what’ and be defiant of the state,” he said. His church has been holding services online, with no opening date set. Churches and state leaders need to find a balance, he said — not overreacting, but remaining cautious.
“Obviously, something’s going on, so it’s not a joke,” he said.