(The April 4 story corrects paragraph 12 to show the location of Lone Star Baptist Church is Greers Ferry, Arkansas; corrects paragraph 17 to show Rob McCoy is the former mayor of Thousand Oaks)
(Reuters) – Her house sits on a tidy, peaceful suburban street outside Cincinnati. For the past few weeks, she has been doing everything right: sheltering at home and working out of her makeshift office to help stop the spread of the new coronavirus.
The Ohio megachurch down the road, Solid Rock, has charted a different course. Despite warnings from local and state officials, Solid Rock had been holding its 1,000-strong gatherings in person, and plans keep the church open on Palm Sunday, the beginning of Holy Week in Christian churches.
“I think they should obey the laws of the land, like the way the Bible tells us to,” said Sandra, who lives a few miles from the site and asked not be identified by last name. Reuters was able independently to corroborate her address and identity.
The local mayor and health officials have asked the church to close, so far to no avail.
Solid Rock did not respond to a request for comment from Reuters but in a statement on its website said, in part, that “we are taking all necessary precautions to ensure the health and safety of anyone who comes to Solid Rock Church. We have scaled back our normal services; and there are not large numbers of worshipers in the facility, but we are we are open and continuing to practice and sustain our faith.”
Millions of American Christians will observe Palm Sunday at home this weekend, as the vast majority of U.S. churches have moved services online to comply with stay-at-home rules.
But, like Solid Rock, pockets of churches from Florida to Texas and across to California are keeping their doors open and inviting worshipers to attend services this weekend.
“We’re defying the rules because the commandment of God is to spread the Gospel,” Louisiana pastor Tony Spell said in an interview with Reuters.
Spell, 42, who plans to hold three services at his 1,000-member Life Tabernacle megachurch in a Baton Rouge suburb on Palm Sunday, has defied state orders against assembling in large groups and has already been hit with six misdemeanors.
“The church is the last force resisting the Antichrist, let us assemble regardless of what anyone says,” he said.
For Spell and others, the public health orders are a threat to religious freedoms and constitutional rights.
“Satan’s trying to keep us apart, he’s trying to keep us from worshipping together. But we’re not going to let him win,” Kelly Burton, pastor at Lone Star Baptist Church in Greers Ferry, Arkansas, wrote in a post on Facebook.
Lone Star has been holding services in the parking lot – what it calls “Church on the Lot” – and will do so on Palm Sunday.
CORONAVIRUS VS COMMUNION
Gatherings organized by at least two churches – one in France, another in South Korea – have been linked to the spread of the virus.
In California, Sacramento County officials said on Friday that they have identified one evangelical church that has a cluster of 71 positive cases. They offered few details but said that while the church itself is closed, church members continue to gather in fellow parishioners’ homes.
Others in California are defying the ban.
Rob McCoy is one of them. He is the former mayor of Thousand Oaks, in the Los Angeles area, but also the pastor of Godspeak Calvary Chapel, where he will offer communion on Palm Sunday – though encouraging worshipers to stand six feet apart.
“It’s very important theologically that communion not be taken alone,” said McCoy. “What we are doing is exercising our inalienable rights. Communion is non-negotiable for us.”
About 400 miles (644 km) north of Thousand Oaks, police in Lodi, California, interrupted a service late last month at the Cross Culture Christian Center, an evangelical church with about 80 regular attendees, to tell members they were violating stay-at-home orders.
They have since been given a warning posted on the church door, a “Notice of Public Nuisance,” demanding the center stop holding services, according to local officials.
“This is a serious public health threat,” said city spokesman Jeff Hood.
Still, the pastor plans to hold services on Palm Sunday, said the church’s attorney, Dean Broyles.
“Simply put, no, we’re not going to obey it,” Broyles told Reuters. “The virus does not suspend our constitutional rights, the right to assemble, freedom of religion and freedom of speech.”
Broyles said the church is taking steps to mitigate risks, including sanitizing the building before services and asking that the elderly or those with health problems remain at home.
“We’re much safer than a Walmart or grocery store,” said Broyles, who is also president of the National Center for Law & Policy, a legal advocacy group based in San Diego. “Think about it, you’re crammed into (store) aisles inches apart from other shoppers. Here we’re sitting six feet apart.”
(Reporting by Michelle Conlin in New York and Rich McKay in Atlanta; Editing by Paul Thomasch and Daniel Wallis)