Rochester, NY—On Tuesday, 300 pastors from across New York state signed on to an open letter urging Gov. Andrew Cuomo to prioritize the safe re-opening of churches for congregational worship. In the letter, the pastors question the government’s labeling of churches as non-essential, noting that religious services are not being considered until phase four in the governor’s recent New York Forward plan.
“We strenuously disagree with the assertion that worship services are anything other than ‘essential.’ All New Yorkers, and all Americans, have a God-given right—recognized in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution—to the free exercise of religion,” the letter stated. “Christians also have a responsibility to meet with other believers regularly (Hebrews 10:24-25). While we respect the authority of government, we must ultimately answer to a much higher authority.”
Rev. Jason J. McGuire, Executive Director of New Yorkers for Constitutional Freedoms (NYCF), said “Phase Four is unacceptable for our first freedom…Under the First Amendment, worship services are not ‘non-essential gatherings.’”
“Initially, churches complied with drastic measures to combat COVID-19. At this stage, however, a blanket ban on worship services across the state is no longer needed to protect the public,” McGuire said. “In some areas of the state, it is safe for churches to re-open if social distancing is observed and other protective measures are taken. In regions that have been hit hard by COVID-19, churches and other houses of worship should be included in Phase Two of the New York Forward plan. If it is safe to re-open retail establishments in a given region, it is safe to re-open churches in that region as well.”
The letter notes the seriousness of quelling a pandemic, but also states that “the Constitution does not permit states to place restrictions on churches or other houses of worship that it does not place upon other types of businesses or gatherings.” Three compelling questions are asked:
- “If it is safe to hold a press conference at which attendees practice social distancing, why is it not safe to hold a church service at which congregants practice social distancing?”
- “If it is safe to allow grocery stores and liquor stores to remain open so long as social distancing is practiced and masks and gloves are worn, why is it deemed unsafe for churches to do the same?”
- “As New York City Councilmember Rev. Ruben Diaz Sr. has pointed out, some New York City church buildings have been used as COVID-19 testing sites. If it is safe to use those church buildings as testing sites, might it also be safe for worship services to be held in those same buildings?”
Rev. McGuire said the churches are not looking for permission to re-open, but a public partner who will work with them to prioritize the safe and expeditious re-opening of churches and other houses of worship for in-person services.
“For the safety of our state and the preservation of religious liberty, we ask Gov. Cuomo to partner with those of us in the faith community,” he said.
Local signees of the letter included Pastor David Hernquist, Van Nest Assembly of God, Bronx, NY; Pastor Jack Roberts, The Bronx Household of Faith; Pastor Charles M. Recker, Heritage Baptist Church, New York, NY; Pastor Paul Murphy, Messiah’s Reformed Fellowship, New York, NY; Pastor Floyd Nicholson, Gracepoint Gospel Fellowship, New City, NY; Pastor Carl Lubin, Bible Baptist Church, Elmont, NY; Pastor Joshua Yerkes, Bible Baptist Church, Elmont, NY; Pastor Claude Stauffer, Calvary Chapel of Hope, Amityville, NY; and Pastor David Fox, Lighthouse Tabernacle Church of God, Central Islip, NY.