Some pastors call it the Super Bowl of their year: Easter Sunday. It's not just the holiest day on the calendar, it's also one of the biggest opportunities churches have to bring new people to Christ. And, for the first time ever, almost the entire world will be celebrating outside of their normal pews. They'll be in cars, on sofas, huddled around their kitchen tables. It's the new normal in the age of the coronavirus, and leaders everywhere are trying to make the best of it. So you can imagine their frustration, in a handful of places, when local officials step in to ruin even that.
The email hit inboxes on Tuesday evening. To the pastors in San Bernardino County, it was a shock. Five days out from Easter, when most churches' services were already set, Supervisor Curt Hagman's staff had decided that any plans for drive-in worship or Easter pickups would have to be canceled. "We understand that this is an important time for Christians around the world... Right now, however, is a critical time for our country and our community..." the statement said. "People may not leave their homes for driving parades or drive-up services or to pick up non-essential items such as pre-packaged Easter eggs or bags filled with candy and toys at a drive-thru location."
It was like a church business meeting gone bad for county churches, who'd spent hours coming up with alternative plans that respected the CDC's guidelines. Some of them were counting on those drive-through services as a way of bringing congregations together on an important day, while not putting anyone at risk. And now, just days out, local bureaucrats wanted to change all that?
"It's alarming," Brad Dacus, president of Pacific Justice Institute told me on "Washington Watch." "They just suddenly pronounced that churches couldn't hand out Easter baskets to people, who were just driving up from the church... [and yet], people can drive up to get a Big Mac at McDonalds's drive through and pick up food." The hypocrisy is astounding. Not to mention the discrimination. How is it that you can leave restaurant carryout open, but not churches? "This is really serious," Brad said, "because it could also play into the ability for people to drive up to get communion, for example, or drive up to confession. We've seen churches that do that as well."
Here's the thing, Brad pointed out, "This is a new area that we're in [in terms of the law]. This is a circumstance that we've not really been in before as a nation. So we can't guarantee that a judge is going to rule one way or the other... but that said, looking at it objectively and comparatively, it makes no sense. And that's why, at the very least, from a public policy perspective and public pressure perspective, I think this is something that people need to be on the phone talking to their local legislators [about] -- or, in this case, county supervisors in San Bernardino."
Turns out, people did get on the phone. Within hours, the supervisors' office in California was inundated with complaints. And I don't blame people. Churches have been put in a tough spot -- along with everyone else in America -- and they've complied with all of the requirements. Now, suddenly, local officials want to change them? And not for everyone, but just for churches? That's where tyranny starts, my friends.
Fortunately for San Bernardino County, they have a supervisor who listens. After a full day of pushback, the county board relented, issuing a new guidance Wednesday reversing course on the Easter drive-ins. Pastor Jack Hibbs, one of FRC's Watchmen Pastors, who talked to Chad Hagman himself, said he had to give credit where credit was due because the supervisor "was most encouraging and optimistic about working with our community and to do what is needed to get us up and running." As for churches, a new press release went out, walking back the order for churches. "Organizations that have planned such services for the coming weekend should proceed with those services if they choose to do so and make every effort to prevent contact between congregants."
Unfortunately, not every jurisdiction is so lucky. Lawrence County, Indiana -- near Bedford -- used the virus to crack down on churches even further. "The Lawrence County Health Dept does not recommend any kind of church services at this time. We do not recommend in-church services, parking lot, or drive-in church... If you have to ask permission, then you probably should not do it."
Across Washington State, Governor Jay Inslee (D) is banning drive-in services altogether. Kansas Governor Laura Kelly (D) tried that -- shutting down all religious services -- only to be overridden by the state legislature. The state's attorney general, Derek Schmidt (R), piled on with a statement afterward, warning that any attempts to stop responsible in-car worship was "unconstitutional." "In our view," he said, "Kansas statute and Kansas Constitution's Bill of Rights forbid the governor from criminalizing participating in worship gatherings."
Churches across the country, with very few exceptions, are trying to be compliant. And in terms of health and safety, there's a big difference between a pastor like the one here in Baton Rouge outright defying common sense by having normal in-church services with hundreds of people -- and parking lot services, where people stay in their cars at a respectable distance. Only an anti-religious zealot, Brad said, would try to snuff out the law-abiding alternatives. "That's a classic example of local governments overstepping their boundaries... and [we] would not hesitate to defend any church or individual that was being attacked."