Church Services Re-Open All Over Massachusetts, But Not In Somerville

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As most churches in Massachusetts have started holding public services again, Somerville’s mayor has told church leaders there to continue limiting gatherings to 10 people.

Mayor Joseph Curtatone is justifying the delay on grounds of safety during the coronavirus emergency. He points out that Somerville is more densely populated than most of the rest of the state.

His directive does not cite a legal authority. Opponents say it appears to violate the governor’s most recent executive order on the subject.

Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker issued an executive order on Monday, May 18 allowing churches and other houses of worship to re-open immediately as long as they comply with rules set by the state Division of Labor Standards, which include limiting crowds to 40 percent of a building’s ordinary occupancy limit and requiring masks and social distancing.

The governor’s May 18 executive order includes the following sentence:

“No municipal or other local authority should adopt or enforce any workplace health or safety rule to address COVID-19 that is in addition to, stricter than, or otherwise in conflict with any COVID-19 workplace safety rule adopted in this Order or under the implementing directives, regulations, and guidance issued by DLS or DPH under the authority granted by this Order.”

“DLS” refers to the state’s Division of Labor Standards. “DPH” refers to the state’s Department of Public Health.

A spokesman for Mayor Curtatone could not immediately be reached for comment on Sunday, May 31.

C.J. Doyle, executive director of the Catholic Action League, issued a statement criticizing the mayor, saying that nothing in city ordinances, state law, the state constitution, or the federal constitution allows the mayor to infringe on the free exercise of religion, which is protected by the state and federal constitutions.

“This is a reckless abuse of executive discretion,” Doyle said in a written statement Thursday, May 28. “It is also unreasonable. Most Catholic churches constructed in the late 19th or early 20th centuries were built to accommodate hundreds of immigrant families. Their surplus capacity today is substantial, as is the capacity of most mainline Protestant church buildings.”

Doyle suggested Curtatone’s political outlook may be influencing his policy on churches.

“As most church goers are more socially conservative than Somerville’s hyper progressive mayor, one wonders if he views them as a disfavored constituency, whose religious practices are inherently ‘non-essential’,” Doyle said in the statement.

Curtatone told WBZ-TV Channel 4 on Friday, May 29 that he’s trying to protect public health.

“We need to make sure as we reactivate these different sectors of our lives they don’t contribute to this pandemic – that we’re limiting and mitigating that risk. All these faith leaders are seeing that,” Mayor Curtatone said. “… Every church, every house of worship, every temple is a different size and scale, and we’ll be working on individually tailored site safety plans for all of them.”

The mayor’s directives do not so far include a target date for authorizing public church services to resume in Somerville.

A note in the church bulletin of a Roman Catholic collaborative of three churches in Somerville (St. Joseph’s, St. Ann’s, and St. Catherine of Genoa, now known as the parish of Sts. Louis and Zelie Martin) for Sunday, May 31 states that the pastor, Father Brian McHugh, met with the mayor and other religious leaders in Somerville on a Zoom call on Tuesday, May 27, and that another priest and parish official have joined the city’s Houses of Worship Reopening Committee.

“Mayor Curtatone stated that churches may reopen on a case by case basis after their completed plans have had time to be reviewed,” the church bulletin item states.