Although religious groups are exempt from most of Ohio’s COVID-19 orders, at least 21 public-health complaints have taken issue with their coronavirus prevention practices in Franklin County.
Complaints obtained by The Dispatch through Sept. 9 show that people raised a range of virus-related concerns, including a lack of face masks, social distancing and sanitizing. Since early April, 12 complaints regarding religious organizations were made to Franklin County Public Health officials and nine to Columbus Public Health.
Rather than reprimand worshipers and faith leaders, local health departments have taken the complaints as opportunities to educate.
“We talk to them about the pandemic,” said Jeff Gibbs, chief of the environmental-health compliance division for the Franklin County health department. “Fliers, posters, is there anything we can do to help you and keep your parishioners safe?”
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, local health departments had no reason to reach out to churches or other houses of worship.
But since Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine issued a statewide mask mandate in July, the departments occasionally have called or emailed area houses of worship when a concern or complaint about their practices is reported. That’s because DeWine put the mask mandate in place and said that city and county health departments would enforce it.
It is the only policy related to the pandemic that doesn’t exempt houses of worship, said Dan Tierney, spokesman for DeWine.
Because of the First Amendment, houses of worship are able to bring together large groups and are considered essential, Tierney said.
Mask-wearing is “the only real rule to encourage everybody being protected,” he said, adding that the officiant doesn’t have to wear one. “If you do gather, a mask protects you, and it protects others.”
Franklin County Public Health called Amazing Grace Christian Church in Grove City after a complaint was received about the church not requiring congregants to wear a mask.
“They were very kind to us, very understanding,” said the Rev. Tom Alexander, senior pastor at the church.
Gibbs said, “Everybody we’ve spoken with, they appreciate that. It’s been very well-received. Our goal is to work with churches and businesses during this pandemic. It’s new for everybody.”
Not all religious leaders are on board, however.
The Ohio Christian Alliance, based in Akron, has been sending out emails and stating on President Chris Long’s podcast that churches are being “threatened” by city and county health departments.
Church leaders from across the state have called the Ohio Christian Alliance to tell it about being contacted by local health departments, including leaders from a church in Cleveland who said they were told that the church would be fined or shut down for disobeying the mask mandate, Long said.
Gibbs said that’s not the case in Franklin County. The department never makes threats, and it does not fine houses of worship or even visit them, he said. The department also wouldn’t shut them down, he said, as the intention is that a house of worship would be called only once if there is a concern.
Long said a group of pastors wrote a letter to DeWine saying that they disagreed with his inclusion of houses of worship in the mask mandate, and that they wouldn’t order their congregants to wear face masks to services. When asked to provide a copy of the letter, Long said it would be provided at a news conference on the topic, which the alliance has not yet decided to host.
“We’re taking a pause ... for the administration to take time to make adjustments,” Long said.
“There’s no reason for a health department to be calling a church for what they’re doing in their sanctuary during worship,” Long said. “This is a First Amendment issue.”
The Rev. Jack Sullivan Jr., executive director of the Ohio Council of Churches, an organization of 17 statewide Christian denominations, said every church he knows of takes the mask mandate seriously.
“They want to do all they can to save lives,” Sullivan said. “They do not take exception; in fact, they find it to be their faith and their civic duty.”
At the church Sullivan attends, Woodland Christian Church on the Near East Side, members abide by the mask mandate and other protocols to stop the spread of the virus “joyfully,” Sullivan said. Woodland has not been contacted by the health department about any complaint.
Amazing Grace church has been creative with its approach to worship during the pandemic and initially closed its doors and held services only online, Alexander said. During the summer, it reopened with safety measures in place, he said.
“We support every effort to keep people safe, and that’s why we closed our doors for months. We want to make sure we’re helping and not hindering,” Alexander said.
He said church leaders had some discomfort with being included in the mask mandate. He sees it as a governing authority mandating the way that churches worship, he said.
“One concern has been the spiritual well-being of our flock,” Alexander said. “People are losing hope, people are depressed and anxious and lonely. ... The church can’t stop being the church at this time; we’ve got to be there for each other.”