Church reopening legal & liability issues draw webinar’s focus

Published Jul 23, 2020

FRESNO—Station greeters in masks to welcome worshipers and take their temperatures as they enter the church. Provide masks for worshipers who don’t have them. Post signs to clarify social distancing protocols. Disinfect the worship area between services.

Those were among church reopening suggestions presented at a July 21 webinar hosted by the California Southern Baptist Convention. The hour-long session on legal and liability issues for churches amid COVID-19 featured Charlie Cutler, president of Church West Insurance Services, and Michael Porrazzo, an attorney specializing in church and Christian education issues. The webinar was moderated by CSBC associate executive director Pete Ramirez.

With proper attention to laws and safety protocols, they said, churches should be able to resume in-person worship when government permits without spreading coronavirus or assuming undue liability.

The pandemic “has been a real challenge for everyone,” Cutler said, and church life is “completely different.”

Most California churches closed in mid-March following Gov. Gavin Newsom’s statewide stay-at-home order. Reopening guidelines for churches and other organizations were issued at the end of May, with singing and chanting restrictions added July 3. Currently, the state is under a county-by-county reopening plan, though Newsom halted indoor church services again July 13 in 29 of California’s most populous counties as COVID-19 cases surged upward statewide.

10-step guide to reopening

Now some churches are asking whether reopening will be feasible anytime soon. The webinar participants said yes, if congregations will heed commonsense recommendations. They presented a 10-step guide to reopening. Among the steps:

— Form a reopening team to design and implement a reopening plan. The team should comprise church leaders, medical and legal personnel and church members with experience reopening their secular workplaces.

— Prepare the facility, including cleaning, disinfecting and sanitizing. Seating areas should be marked with six-foot spacing between worshipers. Hand sanitizing stations should be provided.

— Develop a response and contact tracing plan to be implemented if an attendee is diagnosed with COVID-19. A subcommittee of the reopening team should be responsible for the plan, including implementation of California and U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines. Information from online reservation systems for worship may be helpful in contact tracing, Porrazzo said, but churches should be cautious about giving attendance records to government officials.

— At the worship service, offering plates and communion elements should not be passed, and any activities that involve touching should be discontinued.

— At the service’s conclusion, the pastor should direct attendees to exit the building without congregating in common fellowship areas like atriums, cafes and bookstores.

Planning is the key

It is a “best practice” for churches to “plan as if somebody that’s infected with COVID is going to show up for a church service,” Cutler said, and “as if somebody at higher risk is going to be in attendance at that same time.”

Some state and local coronavirus regulations seem to restrict religious freedom, Porrazzo said. But the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in May that such restrictions are permissible when they protect public health and apply equally to churches and secular gatherings.

Failing to enforce any government regulation could have legal and insurance liability implications, Porrazzo said. As a general rule, insurance policies do not cover churches in the case of “intentional or reckless conduct.”

Before reopening, Cutler said, churches should ask their insurance companies to state in writing whether they will cover claims stemming from a worship attendee contracting COVID-19.

Ramirez advised churches, “If you’re looking to the law, you should be fine.”

The following resources are available on the CSBC website:

Webinar Recording – Church Reopening Legal and Liability

Church Before You Gather: A 10-Step Guide for Reopening Your Church

COVID-19 General Checklist for Places of Worship

COVID-19 Industry Guidance: Places of Worship and Providers of Religious Services and Cultural Ceremonies

California Health Office Directory

COVID-19 Waiver of Liability (Sample for use by churches)


David Roach is a writer in Nashville.