By Christopher White, National Correspondent
NEW YORK — Catholic bishops across the United States have banned public Masses and opted for a virtual celebration of the sacraments as the nation continues to be roiled from the COVID-19 pandemic, but throughout the country, governors are issuing mixed guidelines on policies for houses of worship.
On March 15, the federal government issued new guidelines to avoid gatherings larger than 10 people in order to slow the spread of the coronavirus. The result: Almost all churches have shifted to private services made available online for their parishioners.
Yet across the country, there have been religious leaders defying those recommendations — from Protestant mega-churches in Florida to Episcopal and Jewish congregations in New York — and governors from both political parties have included exemptions for religious activity in implementing their own policies.
In Ohio, Republican Governor Mike DeWine exempted religious organizations from his stay-at-home order, but on social media, he sent a strong warning.
“We did not order religious organizations to close, but my message to EVERYONE is that this is serious,” DeWine tweeted. “When you are coming together … this is dangerous.”
Meanwhile, in New York, the epicenter of the COVID-19 outbreak in the United States, Democratic Governor Andrew Cuomo has been adamant that social interaction is to be
limited to absolutely essential purposes. The state stopped short of mandating church services be canceled while adding it “is strongly recommended no congregate services be held and social distance maintained.”
Most governors it seems are trying to walk a tightrope between maximizing control over social interactions and preserving the right to religious freedom. Still, some Church leaders, predominantly protestant evangelicals, have declared their worship services “essential services” and pushed ahead.
Columbia University law professor Katherine Franke told the Associated Press last week that since “the overwhelming majority of at least Christian congregations are meeting online,” many state leaders likely assumed “most people will do the right thing.”
Other states, such as Maryland and Oregon have banned all gatherings of more than
10 individuals altogether.
While most Catholic leaders have complied with the request, deeming it a necessity and a means of solidarity with the vulnerable, some prominent Catholic conservatives have expressed a different sentiment.
“Closing churches and canceling services betrays this duty of spiritual care,” wrote R.R. Reno, editor of First Things magazine.
Archbishop Jose Gomez of Los Angeles and president of the U.S. bishops, however, has encouraged Catholics to do their part to stop the spread of the virus — but to increase in their Christian witness to love.
“It breaks your heart that this is our reality,” he wrote last week. “But even in a time when we cannot throw our arms around our loved ones, we can still love. And we must love.”