Preparing to Resume Worship amid the ongoing COVID-19 Pandemic

Published Dec 18, 2020

Churches should begin considering their course of action regarding in-person worship based on the Supreme Court’s recent injunctive relief decision which barred New York from enforcing its “lockdown” orders.

Courts in California may have to wrestle with cases in their own jurisdictions because of the decision. The nation’s highest court has indicated that the plaintiffs, the Catholic Archdiocese and a Jewish Synagogue in New York City, are likely to prevail on the merits of their arguments that the First Amendment’s protection for the free exercise of religion cannot be abandoned in a wholesale manner, even during exceptional circumstances, such as a “novel virus” pandemic. The powerful majority opinion provides hope churches in California to overcome the obstacles placed on houses of worship since mid-March. 

The Court acknowledged that while some restrictions may be necessary and permissible, those restrictions must be applied fairly and equally to religious institutions and secular institutions alike. In other words, if the local government allows a grocery store to admit hundreds of people into its establishment, it must also allow churches, synagogues, mosques, and other houses of worship to admit congregants with equal application of any guidelines.

In two very early high-profile decisions involving California and Nevada churches that did not provide the petitioned for injunctive relief, the Court found itself struggling to deal with many unknowns and chose to err on the side of caution. The five justices now appear to have acknowledged that time and actual experience have shown that, while the effects of COVID-19 are serious, those effects can be reasonably dealt with in a way that does not offend the Constitution, and have put public officials on notice.

So, what does this mean for churches in California? Currently, there are state and local “lockdown” orders which, for all intents and purposes, prohibit all indoor worship activities. Outdoor worship, on the other hand, has been rendered equal to “protests” as the free exercise of one’s First Amendment rights, and there is little in the way of limitation to outdoor worship attendance.

However, several well-known, California pastors have for many weeks or months defied those orders and allowed those who choose to come to church to worship indoors. Some have received civil fines, some have been arrested and their congregants threatened with arrest, and others apparently have the blessings of their local city or county officials who have taken no action against those churches. In this, there seems to be much inequity which will have to be addressed by the courts, perhaps under challenges based on the Fourteenth Amendment. 

California Southern Baptist Convention, while it believes worship for believers is an essential right, will not direct churches one way or another based on the denomination’s non-hierarchical polity model. Each CSBC congregation is an “autonomous” local body of believers, and each of those churches must decide what their unique response is, based on the perceived risk.

First, and foremost, close adherence to the CDC guidance for cleaning and disinfection MUST happen!  The most current guidelines are available for download:

Cleaning and Disinfecting Your Facility

Cleaning and Disinfecting Your Facility (Updated Sept 2020)

Please read carefully and follow all guidelines. This may mean adjusting worship times for churches which hold multiple consecutive worship services.

Here are some considerations. The church should:

  • Enlist one or more teams of volunteers to assist in the cleaning and disinfecting process.
  • Make hand sanitizer available for those who want it.
  • Insist that all persons attending worship, indoors or outdoors, wear fabric face coverings or masks. Have a supply of disposable masks available for those who don’t have them.
  • Figure out a reasonable plan of “distancing” which may require limiting the number of persons admitted indoors to implement that plan. 
  • Have non-contact devices available to take the temperature of persons before attending worship 

Not to be overlooked is insurance. Your church almost certainly has a Commercial General Liability (“CGL”) insurance policy to protect against the negligent acts or omissions of the church and its officers, directors, employees, volunteers, members, or attenders. It is recommended that this policy be obtained from an insurance company specializing in protecting churches, which typically does not include insurance companies that advertise on television and/or radio.

CSBC works with insurance companies specializing in CGL policies.

The one thing that remains constant is this:  God is still in control. We are charged with the responsibility to, and have been created to, worship Him. Scripturally, worship is an individual responsibility that is most effectively expressed corporately. The church is a community of like-minded persons, and we serve the communities in which we are established. Despite what politicians may believe, say, or do, this is precisely what makes the church essential in our society and others – and especially so in times of crisis. 

The time to return to corporate worship, like the return of our Lord and Savior, is coming soon. We must be ready for both. 

For additional questions or concerns, contact the Human Resources & Church Compliance Ministry by calling 559-256-0858 or emailing hrcc@csbc.com.