SALT LAKE CITY — President Donald Trump said this week that he wants to see church buildings packed again by Easter. Some houses of worship are already well on their way to meeting that goal.

Across the country, several churches are defying social distancing orders and holding in-person services with few alterations. Others are still meeting because there’s not yet a ban on large group gatherings in their state or because they’ve been granted an exemption to emergency rules.

Overall, 12% of respondents to a new national survey of regular churchgoers said in-person services at their house of worship have not been canceled, according to data provided to the Deseret News by Paul Djupe, a political scientist at Denison University in Ohio. Seventeen percent said they continue to attend in-person church events.

These figures are low, but they still frustrate Americans who have put their own routines on hold to stop the spread of COVID-19.

Worship services are a major part of life for many people of faith, but religious groups should be willing to move them online to decrease infection risk, said Maggie Garrett, the vice president for public policy for Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

“If there are mass gatherings at churches and other houses of worship, it doesn’t just put people who attend in danger. It puts people in the community at large in danger,” she said.

Those who support congregations ignoring social distancing recommendations say that if many retail stores and office buildings are considered too important to close, then houses of worship should be seen as essential services, too.

“You can’t say the retailers are essential but the church is not. That is a persecution of the faith,” said the Rev. Tony Spell, a pastor in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, who continues to lead in-person services at his church multiple times a week, to CNN.

In this Sunday, March 15, 2020, photo, Redemption to the Nations Church Pastor Kevin Wallace preaches to his congregation about trusting God to help them get through the COVID-19 threat in Chattanooga, Tenn. While most churches around Hamilton County decided to cancel services because of concerns over the disease, Redemption to the Nations stayed open. It has since decided to stop holding in-person Sunday worship services. | Troy Stolt, Chattanooga Times Free Press via AP

Legal confusion

Although houses of worship are protected by strong religious freedom laws at the federal level and in most states, legal experts argue it’s within the government’s authority to force houses of worship to follow group gathering bans in the interest of public health.

“So long as (group gathering) restrictions are neutral and applicable to everybody, religious institutions have to abide by them,” said Michael Moreland, director of the Ellen H. McCullen Center for Law, Religion and Public Policy at Villanova University, to the Deseret News last week.

Yes, the government can force churches to close. Here’s why

However, shelter-in-place orders are more controversial. Some religious freedom advocates say government officials can’t keep small groups or individuals from going to their house of worship if several other members of the community, including restaurant workers or grocery store clerks, are still moving about freely.

“We fully support protecting public health and safety, but the government doesn’t need to engage in religious discrimination to do so,” said Mike Berry, the general counsel at First Liberty Institute, in a statement challenging one Texas city’s stay-at-home orders.

Amid uncertainty about state’s rights, some governors have chosen to exempt religious groups from even their restrictions on large group gatherings.

For example, in Michigan, Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer is allowing churches to continue holding meetings of more than 50 people without facing retribution. Whitmer told Fox News she hoped churches would still cancel in-person events, but that she and state legislatures felt it was outside of their authority to tell faith groups what to do.

Kansas, Ohio and a handful of other states also offer explicit exemptions for houses of worship. Elsewhere, officials have said they won’t go after churches that violate gathering bans even after approving policies that say they would.

Conflicting messages about the rights of churches make it harder to uphold other social distancing rules, Garrett said.

State leaders who promote religious exemptions “are undermining some of their other work,” she said.

Tough choices

Several religious denominations have asked member churches to close their buildings regardless of what guidance they’re getting from state officials. For example, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has canceled all in-person meetings and closed temples around the world.

But some houses of worship haven’t received clear instructions from state or religious authorities. They have to make decisions about in-person services on their own.

In that situation, it’s tough to figure out the right thing to do, as the Rev. Jeff Schooley, pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Marysville, Ohio, told the Deseret News last week. Faith leaders have to consider how members of their congregation and community will react and sort through the religious, political and health-related arguments for and against closure.

“I worried there was no way to escape the political tinge on this,” the Rev. Schooley said, noting that many Republicans strongly opposed social distancing measures when they were first handed down.

Sharing the same religious beliefs does not guarantee that people have similar ideas about the coronavirus. Members of most faith groups are divided over whether COVID-19 represents a major threat to the health of the U.S. population, according to a Pew Research Center survey released last week.

The new survey on church closures from Djupe and his co-authors, political scientists Ryan Burge and Andrew Lewis, confirms that skepticism about the coronavirus isn’t unique to a single denomination. It showed that churchgoers who say they still have access to in-person services come from a variety of religious traditions and geographic regions.

“I figured we’d see much higher rates among evangelicals” since they’ve been receiving more press coverage, Djupe said. But evangelical churches weren’t significantly more likely than others to be open.

Because houses of worship that remain open belong to a mix of religious denominations, it’ll take more than a new statement from evangelical or Jewish leaders to convince holdouts to close their doors. Some rebellious pastors have vowed to remain open until all public services are shut down.

“If they close every door in this city, then I will close my doors,” the Rev. Spell told CNN.

Tyler Payne and Halle Hughes pray at Redemption to the Nations church on Sunday, March 15, 2020, in Chattanooga, Tenn. While most churches around Hamilton County decided to cancel services because of concerns over the coronavirus (COVID-19), Redemption to the Nations stayed open. It has since decided to stop holding in-person Sunday worship services. | Troy Stolt, Chattanooga Times Free Press via AP