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In footage of two instances that went viral on Thursday and Friday, Christians gathered in the government-approved venues of a Pennsylvania Wal-Mart and a Las Vegas casino to engage in the worship that authorities have deemed non-essential.
In a Thursday tweet that was retweeted by Vice President Mike Pence, Faith and Freedom Coalition Chairman Ralph Reed posted footage of a worship service in a Vegas casino, writing, “Packed house at #EvangelicalsForTrump prayer & praise event in Las Vegas. NV Governor banned church services but casinos can operate at 50% capacity. So we are praying in a casino.”
Packed house at #EvangelicalsForTrump prayer & praise event in Las Vegas. NV Governor banned church services but casinos can operate at 50% capacity. So we are praying in a casino. pic.twitter.com/fP4xE3lPAb
— Ralph Reed (@ralphreed) August 7, 2020
Calvary Chapel Dayton Valley was at the center of a controversial Supreme Court case last month when the Nevada church pleaded for relief from the state’s strict attendance cap for worship services. Chief Justice John Roberts sided with the liberal majority to deny the church’s petition, a decision that was met with a strong rebuke from dissenting Justices Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh, and Samuel Alito.
In his dissent, Gorsuch contrasted the state’s treatment of churches with how they treat casinos and other entertainment venues, writing, “[T]here is no world in which the Constitution permits Nevada to favor Caesars Palace over Calvary Chapel.”
According to The Post Millennial, a similar event also took place recently in the grocery section of a Wal-Mart in North Versailles, Pennsylvania, a town near Pittsburgh. In April, Democratic Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolfe urged churchgoers to find different ways to practice their religion than gathering in churches. “Religious leaders are encouraged to find alternatives to in-person gatherings and to avoid endangering their congregants,” he advised. “Individuals should not gather in religious buildings or homes for services or celebrations until the stay-at-home order is lifted.”
Wolfe took flak when he broke his own state’s coronavirus lockdown restrictions in June by marching in solidarity with hundreds of protesters in Harrisburg following the death of George Floyd. In Harrisburg’s Dauphin County, gatherings were restricted to 25 people or fewer at the time, according to Pennsylvania’s color-coded reopening plan.
Pennsylvania Health Secretary Dr. Rachel Levine defended Wolfe’s apparent hypocrisy, saying, “The governor has always said that people have the right to protest, and to demonstrate, and the right to free speech, and so overall, we want large gatherings such as maybe a party or some type of concert or something, to be under 250 people.”
This church decided to worship at their local Walmart since they weren't allowed to gather anywhere else pic.twitter.com/Su6ojO4gVA
— Stephanie Smith Parler @stephsmith84 (@use4a_no) August 6, 2020
The coronavirus pandemic has increased the tension between civil and ecclesiastical authorities nearly to the breaking point in states such as California, where many congregations are defying Democratic California Gov. Gavin Newsom’s July 13 order that re-instated lockdowns for churches and other establishments deemed non-essential by state authorities.
This week, Ventura County sued Godspeak Calvary Chapel in Thousand Oaks, California, for holding no-mask, no-distance indoor services. Rob McCoy, its senior pastor, said, “We would be the first to be masked and distanced, and willingly so, if this were meriting it, and it doesn’t. This isn’t a health issue, it’s an ideological issue.”
Grace Community Church, a congregation in Los Angeles pastored by prominent author and theologian John MacArthur, also made headlines last month when he and the church elders penned an extensive statement explaining why they believe the secular government did not have legitimate authority to forbid in-person assembly indefinitely.
Explaining how they complied with state mandates at first, the church leaders justified their civil disobedience in part by claiming that the lockdowns done in the name of public health were causing spiritual damage to their parishioners. “Opportunities for believers to serve and minister to one another have been missed,” they wrote. “And the suffering of Christians who are troubled, fearful, distressed, infirm, or otherwise in urgent need of fellowship and encouragement has been magnified beyond anything that could reasonably be considered just or necessary.”