How To Hold a Legal Church Service During the COVID-19 Pandemic
In March, the World Health Organization classified COVID-19 as a global pandemic, and shortly after, President Trump declared a state of national emergency. Governors across the United States began issuing emergency declarations limiting the constitutional freedoms of Americans in the name of preserving the common good and safety of those most vulnerable in our communities. Most states continue to have restrictions on gatherings of people. Now that we have done our duty and flattened the curve, many states are beginning to reopen. As statewide stay-at-home orders are lifted, we expect to see the size of group gatherings permitted to increase over time. So what do churches in Colorado need to do to ensure that they will be ready to hold legal in-person church services? This post will address the new “Safer at Home” phase and the restrictions it places on churches, as well as best practices for holding a legal in-person church service. While this post specifically addresses Colorado, similar restrictions and approaches are true in many other states.
“Safer at Home”
The Colorado statewide stay-at-home order expired on April 26, 2020. On April 27, the state moved into the “Safer at Home” phase. Under the “Safer at Home” order, issued by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, groups continue to be limited to no more than ten people. Group restrictions apply to gatherings both inside and outside, as well as public or private events. The “Safer at Home” order carries with it the threat of legal enforcement, including fines and jail time (though not specified in the order). So far, penalties have only been issued against the pastor of a church, but technically it could be levied against every single person in attendance at an illegal gathering.
Under the “Safer at Home” order, churches should continue to limit the size of in-person church gatherings to no more than ten people, including church staff, to avoid violating the state health department order.
The new order is set to expire on May 26, 2020. At that time, Governor Polis may decide to extend the order or amend it in some manner. It’s very likely that as time progresses, more people will be permitted to gather together. Churches should continue to pay close attention to the group gathering restrictions and the means by which the directives are enforced. If it is merely guidance, it does not carry the threat of legal consequences. However, if it is an order, then the power of the government is available to enforce the order.
Churches should also be mindful of county and local rules on group gatherings and social distancing. Counties and local governments may have stricter policies in place than the state.
If these policies and ones like them continue over time, especially as the risk of the virus begins to drop, they may become an unconstitutional burden on free exercise. Legal challenges are already beginning around the country. The greater the danger to the public, and the more consistent the burdens on churches are with burdens on other sectors, the more likely the government legitimately has the power to impose these limitations. You will have to monitor the changing situation carefully with your legal counsel.
Best Practice for Holding a Legal In-Person Church Service
The measures listed below may help churches avoid civil liability (which could involve an attendee claiming that they were exposed to COVID-19 at a church gathering), as well as comply with public safety orders. If the church’s services are legally challenged, following the advice listed here would put the church in a better position to defend its actions. Churches may also consider preparing a written document regarding guidelines for in-person services and have the Board of the organization officially approve the guidelines and require staff training.
- Require all church workers who come within six feet of others to wear a face covering at all times (per the new state order that went into effect on Thursday, April 23, 2020, and will be in effect until May 17, 2020). The church should make every effort to provide non-medical face coverings to employees. The consequences for violators include a fine and imprisonment of up to one year.
- Thoroughly clean and disinfect the facility prior to and following each in-person service, and also if someone uses the restroom. Follow CDC and state guidelines.
- Provide pre-service invitations for in-person service and provide guidance to attendees regarding the process. Encourage attendees to follow social distancing guidelines. Encourage sick and vulnerable people to stay home. Ask attendees to stay home for at least 14 days if they know they have come in contact with an individual with a confirmed case of COVID-19. Specifically, discourage handshaking or any other kind of physical contact at the church.
- Know in advance expected turnout and plan the interior layout of the church. This should include where people will enter, where they will exit, and what path they will be escorted through within the church building.
- Encourage attendees to do the following before coming to a church service: take temperature, wear freshly washed clothing, refrain from drinking or eating before coming so as to avoid using the restrooms, use the restroom prior to leaving home, and bring their own personal protective equipment (like a mask or face covering and gloves). Encourage attendees to wash their clothing following the service.
- Post signs on and within the facility to explain the service protocol.
- Provide hand sanitizer throughout the facility.
- Refrain from passing out church bulletins or offering plates.
- Provide an open line of communication for attendees to seek answers to questions in advance of the service.
- Tape out spacing inside and outside. Families that live together can sit together, but there should be at least six feet distance between household units, and more if possible.
- Prop doors open if possible.
- Plan one-way traffic in and out of the building, with a separate entrance door and exit door on opposite sides of the building, if possible.
- Increase ventilation in the building as much as possible.
The rules governing church gatherings are changing rapidly. Following the guidance laid out above will set your organization up for a good defense if it is challenged in court. As always, if you have specific questions regarding your church organization or your constitutional rights, seek out experienced legal counsel to ensure best practice and compliance with state, county, and local orders.
Featured Image by Rebecca Sidebotham.
Because of the generality of the information on this site, it may not apply to a given place, time, or set of facts. It is not intended to be legal advice, and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations