UPDATE May 3, 1:36 p.m.: The Knox County Health Department has apparently had second thoughts about its draconian anti-church policy, because the guidance has been stealth-edited to remove the communion ban and other instructions relating to church attendance. It now merely instructs that places of worship should “See State Guidance.”
One of the things we’re beginning to see as states move toward “reopening” is elected officials and health directors mandating even more stringent precautions than had existed in prior orders. In Ohio, for example, Gov. Mike DeWine announced last week a plan to reopen the state, even while ordering restaurants, stores, and their customers to wear masks — something that wasn’t required under his previous shutdown order.
It’s even worse in Knox County, Tenn., where the health department just announced that while churches may reopen on May 1, the Lord’s Supper is forbidden.
The order was announced by Knox County Health Department Regional Hospital Coordinator Charity Menefee, who announced that Communion is not part of “core worship.”
“The Community Strategy for Phased Reopening is complementary to Governor Lee’s ‘Tennessee Pledge: Reopening Tennessee Responsibly’ framework and the White House’s ‘Opening Up America Again’ guidance,” the edict explains. “Local government has been empowered to create strategies relevant to the unique needs of the community.”
“If there are differences between the plans, the community should follow this local plan,” the document explains. The order lists the rules for reopening a wide variety of businesses including restaurants, spas, tattoo parlors, and museums. It also allows churches to hold services, provided they follow the county’s stringent guidelines that include social distancing, sanitizing surfaces between services, treating every partitioner “as if they are potentially dangerous,” and a requirement that everyone in attendance at Knox County churches wear a mask—unlike stores and restaurants, where employes and patrons are only required to wear a mask when social distancing cannot be maintained.
In addition, “The physical taking of communion/sacrament should not be performed due to the serial breaking of physical distancing across a
congregation.” Churches are urged to “consider guiding parishioners in how to connect with the spiritual aspects of these practices during this phase.” Never mind that for Christians, Communion is a requirement, not an optional activity that can be transmitted over the internet.
Not only that, but church attendees are also banned from physically embracing or shaking hands with one another. And singing, while not banned, “is discouraged as it is thought to be an activity that expels significantly more virus than talking.”
Also banned by the Knox County order: “communal items (for example, tithe plates, hymnals, bibles, etc.).” Churches are told they should use a donation box in lieu of an offering plate. “Only core worship services are permitted in Phase One,” the order reads. “Activities such as groups and classes, youth services, social events, potlucks, communal snacks or food, and nursery, are not permitted in Phase One.”
I want to make clear that I’m not downplaying the dangers of the COVID-19 virus. Our family has been taking precautions, worshipping at home via Facebook, staying home except to go out for food or exercise, and staying away from our friends and family. But as this pandemic drags on and it appears, increasingly, that we’ve either successfully flattened the curve or the pandemic wasn’t nearly as bad as the models predicted — Ohio’s health director predicted 100,000 deaths. The number is currently 937 —I’ve become convinced that treating hot spots like New York City the same as rural counties in the heartland is less about protecting the public and more about “doing something.”
With the draconian steps Knox County is taking, trampling both civil and religious liberties, the area must be a hotbed of the coronavirus, right? Not even close. The county, with a population of 470,313, has only seen 214 COVID-19 cases and four deaths. Not four hundred, not forty—four. And while every life is valuable and every death mourned, Knox county is hardly in such a state of emergency that drastic actions like suspending the First Amendment might have some basis in reason. The current order to ban practices that are sacred to Christians the world over is reactionary and absurd on its face.
While the Constitution says that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” here we have unelected bureaucrats deciding what may and may not be considered part of “core worship.” That is literally the definition of “prohibiting the free exercise” of religion. If Christians cannot worship in the manner they and their religious texts deem to be essential, then there is no free exercise of religion.
Government agents have no business involving themselves in such decisions.
We’ve all learned a lot over the last several weeks about how we as Americans respond to a perceived threat. The vast majority of us have acted responsibly, even as our lives and livelihoods are being disrupted and in many cases destroyed. It speaks well of our character as a nation that we would sacrifice to protect those more vulnerable than ourselves. But it’s also been disconcerting to see how quickly we’re willing to give up our liberties and obey government edicts, even when they seem to be arbitrary and nonsensical. And it’s terrifying to watch as low-level bureaucrats and elected officials take advantage of the crisis to amass power and order the lives of the rest of us.
At some point, Christians are going to need to get back to church. While most of us have complied with stay-at-home orders, we can’t do this forever. The church, in order to be a biblical church, must meet together—and must participate in the sacraments, including Communion. The decision to open must lay with the church leaders and members, not the government.
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