SALT LAKE CITY — Many Americans hope their church will be one of the first buildings to reopen once the spread of COVID-19 slows. The latest updates from lawmakers across the country suggest they’ll likely get their wish.

The White House’s guidelines for opening up America and nearly all plans released state-by-state so far include houses of worship in lists of businesses that can reopen by early May.

Most states will likely take this approach since religious freedom law requires officials to treat churches no worse than similarly situated gathering spaces, said Michael Moreland, director of the Center for Law, Religion and Public Policy at Villanova University.

“If restaurants are allowed to open and have dine-in customers, then it’s hard for a state to justify not allowing churches to open,” he said.

That will leave it up to individual churches to decide how to proceed. Religious leaders believe it will still be many weeks before in-person services return to normal, regardless of how quickly social distancing restrictions change.

“It will be a long time before churches get back to having a time during the service where people greet one another with handshakes and hugs,” said Russell Moore, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention.

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In the meantime, congregations that return will have to adopt new cleaning routines, seating arrangements and worship habits in order to heed health officials’ advice and keep people safe.

Resuming in-person services will be a milestone, but it won’t be the end of coronavirus-related challenges, said Mike Griffin, public affairs representative for the Georgia Baptist Mission Board.

“There’s not any church, just like there’s not any business, that wants to be known as being reckless and not taking proper health and safety precautions,” he said.

Shifting restrictions

Federal law and most state constitutions outlaw nearly all forms of government interference with religion. But, during a pandemic, officials can temporarily restrict congregational activities, as long as churches aren’t treated worse than other institutions, Moreland said.

“The government has an interest in preventing the spread of the virus” that outweighs religious freedom concerns, he said.

For the past several weeks, most states have required houses of worship to adhere to the same bans on large gatherings affecting restaurants, gyms and sporting events. Even in places where churches were granted exemptions, lawmakers have encouraged pastors to move services online, Griffin said.

Georgia Gov. Brian “Kemp never banned churches from meeting, but he didn’t recommend it and said they should meet online or do drive-in services,” he noted.

The balance of power between religious freedom and public safety begins to shift back toward religion once health conditions begin to improve, Moreland said. States have a harder time justifying restrictions on churches once they’ve loosened the rules governing other areas of public life.

“If they’re not offering relief to religious institutions, it looks like churches are being disfavored,” he said.

And, unlike other types of businesses, houses of worship can cite the First Amendment and other religious freedom laws to challenge any perceived mistreatment. This unique ability helps explain why churches will be included in phase one of most state reopening plans, said Mat Staver, founder and chairman of Liberty Counsel, a law firm that’s helping religious leaders challenge coronavirus-related restrictions.

“Houses of worship have a constitutional right to exist unlike other commercial operations like liquor stores or Home Depot,” he said.

Reopening plans

Staver expects many houses of worship to get the green light to resume in-person services by early May. However, like Moore and Griffin, he believes several more weeks will pass before churches return to their normal routines.

“Every church is going to have to make a decision as to when and how best to reopen,” he said.

In other words, there’s going to be a gap between getting a green light from state leaders and actually pressing the gas pedal, said Griffin, who works with around 3,600 Southern Baptist churches in Georgia. Factors like the average age of worship attendees, church location and congregation size will all affect how houses of worship behave.

“Every week, pastors will have to reevaluate what’s going on in their community,” he said. “There’s not a one-size-fits-all approach.”

Over the next few months, religious leaders will have to be in regular contact with health officials and lawmakers and pay attention to any policy changes. They’ll also need to speak regularly with members of their congregation and keep track of their concerns, Moore said.

“The first issue to consider is whether or not people are actually safe,” he said. “The second issue is whether people feel safe.”

Neither Moore nor Griffin expect social distancing requirements to go away anytime soon. Houses of worship will have to ensure members of different households stay at least six feet apart at all times and that church buildings are regularly cleaned.

“How you enter the church, find your seat and ... use the restroom” will likely all be different now than in the past, Griffin said, noting that the Georgia Baptist Mission Board has released a set of reopening guidelines that covers seven areas of church life.

Many churches will need to continue offering online or drive-in services long after they’ve resumed small, in-person gatherings in order to keep members safe, said Staver, whose organization is calling on pastors to celebrate “Reopen Church Sunday” on May 3.

“We’re encouraging churches to take precautions and also be innovative in their approach,” he said.

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The bottom line is that a church’s first in-person service after a coronavirus-related closure won’t feel like a grand reopening, Moore said. It’ll be a quieter, smaller affair with no hugs and lots of hand sanitizer.

“Most of us envision some sort of ticker tape parade celebrating the end of this that’s probably not going to happen,” he said.

But, amid a pandemic, any step toward normalcy is a cause for celebration, Griffin said.

“We’re very encouraged” to be talking about in-person worship again, he said.

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