Church Leaders To Meet With Reopening Advisory Board, Massachusetts Governor Says

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Religious leaders — including one from the Archdiocese of Boston — are expected to meet with the state’s Reopening Advisory Board on Saturday, May 9 to talk about when the governor might authorize churches to open for public services again.

Father Bryan Hehir, secretary for health care and social service for the Archdiocese of Boston, plans to attend the meeting, a spokesman for the archdiocese, Terrence Donilon, told New Boston Post on Friday evening.

Father Hehir is a member of the inner circle of Cardinal Sean O’Malley, the Roman Catholic archbishop of Boston.

Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker said today he is anxious to hear what the religious leaders have to say, but did not describe a specific approach to authorizing church services to resume.

The governor did not identify the religious leaders. The governor’s press office did not immediately respond to a request for that information on Friday afternoon.

Reopening Advisory Board meetings are not open to the public.

Baker received a letter Thursday, May 7 signed by about 260 clerics that calls on him to declare churches essential and not stand in the way of their reopening. The letter argues that churches are as capable of sanitizing and practicing social distancing as other activities that are currently allowed under the governor’s executive order.

On March 23, the governor issued an executive order limiting most public gatherings to 10 people or less, including what the order calls “faith-based” events. The governor has argued that the order is necessary to try to limit the spread of coronavirus.

The clerics in their letter this week expressed disappointment that the governor’s order continues to severely limit church services and that no church representatives serve on the governor’s Reopening Advisory Board. The letter notes that the state and federal constitutions guarantee freedom of religion.

Most of the signers are independent evangelical Protestant pastors. The denominations include Lutherans, Baptists, Congregationalists, Pentecostals, and Assembly of God.

The signers as of Thursday, May 7 included a handful of Roman Catholic priests from the Archdiocese of Boston, but none of the four Catholic bishops in the state. The list also includes no members of the Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts or the Massachusetts Council of Churches.

The letter does not mention an unfolding conflict in Worcester concerning a Baptist pastor who has held three church services exceeding the governor’s limit during the past couple of weeks. Pastor Kris Casey of Adams Square Baptist Church received a citation for a $300 civil penalty on Monday, May 4 and is expected to be hit with a subsequent $500 fine for the most recent service Wednesday, May 6.

Worcester officials say they are following the penalties set forth in a directive from the governor associated with his executive order limiting public gatherings. The directive allows a $500 fine and even imprisonment for third and subsequent offenses.

The governor did not address the Worcester church situation during his coronavirus press conference on Friday, May 8.

During the question-and-answer period of the press conference Friday, a reporter asked the governor a question that referred to the clerics’ letter.

Baker began his answer by asking another state official about when the Reopening Advisory Board expected to meet with church leaders.

A transcript of the exchange follows:


Reporter:  Governor, church leaders have asked you to start letting them … [inaudible] have services in some capacity.

How soon do you think they will be allowed to have those services?


Governor Charlie Baker:  I think, I think churches are coming to see you soon, aren’t they? Tomorrow. O.K..

I am very interested in hearing what comes from the conversations that the religious community has with, with the Reopening Advisory Board.

I said from the beginning that one of the most difficult elements of that gathering order, which limited gatherings to 10 or less, was the impact it had on people’s ability to practice their faith.

But that said, there’s plenty of evidence from around the world that in places where people didn’t do that, religious gatherings became a really big hotbed, and a hotspot of outbreak.

So, whatever we do here, that’s part of the reason why I’m anxious to hear what they have to say, is, we have to do that as safely as we can, working collaboratively with our colleagues in the religious community to ensure that it’s not a short-term thing. Whatever happens here, whenever that happens, we want it to be something that is sustainable over time.

And remember, a lot of the folks, I mean, a lot of the folks who, who practice their faith are older. I mean, there’s a lot of young people, too. But, I can’t remember the last time I went to a service in a temple or a mosque or a church or a cathedral, where a significant portion of the population wasn’t under the age of – or over the age of 50. And that’s exactly the community in many respects that we need to pay attention to.