WASHINGTON–After Catholic and Lutheran churchesannouncedplans to reopen their churches to groups larger than ten without the Governor’s blessing,Minnesota announced today that it would lift that limitation, and clear the way forhouses of worship of all faith traditions to open to larger groups starting Wednesday, May 27, 2020. The Minnesota Catholic Conference and The Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod worked cooperativelywith Governor Tim Walz to develop a plan for reopening churches by Pentecost Sunday. Governor Walz returned to the negotiating table after the Churches acted in defense of their free exercise, announcing on Wednesdaythat they would resume in-person worship services despitethe Governor’sCOVID-19 executive order, whichwrongly subordinated Minnesotans’ spiritual well-being to economicinterests.Minnesota’s reopening plan is a model for other states, as it shows that it is possible for in-person religious worship to resume in a safe, cooperative, and responsible manner.
On May 13, 2020, Governor Tim Walz issued an executive order with guidelines for reopening commerce in the State of Minnesota as of June 1.The order allowedmalls, shops, and other retailers—from pet-grooming services to medical cannabis operations—to open their doors atfifty percent capacity.A phased plan for reopening bars, restaurants, tattoo parlors, and salons was also announced. But in-person worship was not mentioned at all. Rather, worship gatherings greater than ten people remained banned—until “TBD.”The Churchessent Governor Walz separate letters on Wednesday announcing that they would be resuming worship services before May 31, Pentecost Sunday.At the same time,the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty and Sidley Austin LLP sent Governor Tim Walz and Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison a legal letter explaining why continuing to keep churches closed would violatethe First Amendment. The governor has now recognized that churches can reopen safely and carefully in the same way as malls and other business operations.
“We are grateful that Governor Walz entered into respectful dialogue with us,recognized the spiritual needs of our faithful, and agreed that it is possible to resume worship services safely and responsibly,” said Archbishop Bernard Hebda, Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Saint Paul and Minneapolis. “Hopefully, our experience of constructive dialogue can serve as a roadmap for churches across the country suffering from similar inequities, whether intended or unintended, in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. We are grateful that Becket and Sidley Austin LLP helped us to guard our first freedom—religious freedom—so that Catholics can receive the Eucharist and be strengthened in their response to the challenges of this trying time.”
“The ability to meet in person to worship God and support one another is invaluable to our community of faith,”said Rev. Dr. Lucas Woodford, President of the Minnesota South District of The Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod.“We are so pleased that Minnesota decided to reopen churches, without needing to resort to legal action. We will remain prayerful and watchful,sothat thisagreement is just the beginning of a return to full, in-person worship.”
Minnesota’s reopening plan allows churches to hold indoor services at 25 percent capacity with up to 250 people. The churches have also published extensive safety and hygiene protocols to ensure a safe and responsible return to worship.After Minnesota’s change, only 8 states continue to impose facially unequal treatment on religious worship during the reopening process, including California and New Hampshire. Becket released a resource that tracks state treatment of churches in their reopening plan.
“Good things happen when people of faith stand up for their rights,”said Eric Rassbach, vicepresident and senior counsel at Becket.“Governor Walz is to be commended for seeing the light. Minnesota is setting an example byrecognizing the importance ofgiving equal treatment to churches and other houses of worship, and that worship services can be conducted safely, cooperatively, and responsibly. Other closed-church states are on notice.”
For more information or to arrange an interview with a Becketattorney, contact Ryan Colby firstname.lastname@example.org 202-349-7219.Interviews can be arranged in English, Chinese, French, German, Portuguese, Russian, and Spanish.