Christmas Church Services in Massachusetts?  Yes, Says Governor – But No Guarantees About Future

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Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker has no immediate plans to shut down access to church services again because of coronavirus, but he isn’t taking it off the table – even after a U.S. Supreme Court decision last week overturned the governor of New York’s order severely limiting church attendance.

“At this time the Commonwealth is not planning any additional closures or restrictions,” Baker said during a coronavirus press conference Tuesday, December 1.

But when a reporter asked the governor about the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision November 25 in Diocese of Brooklyn v. Cuomo, Baker suggested it doesn’t change the situation in Massachusetts because state officials here are applying coronavirus restrictions evenly to all types of gatherings and not singling out religious activities.

Indoor religious gatherings in Massachusetts were limited to 10 people from March 23 to May 18, when the governor lifted the restriction and issued a new executive order allowing churches to re-open as long as their buildings stay under 40 percent of capacity, they maintain 6-foot social distancing, and congregants wear masks. Gatherings before and after services are also prohibited. The order has since been changed to allow 50 percent occupancy in church buildings.

In New York, Governor Andrew Cuomo issued an executive order stating that under certain coronavirus conditions religious gatherings would limited to 25 people in some counties, and limited to 10 under certain other conditions. The Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn and several Jewish synagogues sued in federal court, saying their constitutional rights were being violated.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled 5-4 last week that the New York governor’s order violates the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which guarantees the “free exercise” of religion. The court noted that under the governor’s order a store in Brooklyn might see hundreds of customers during a day while a large church in Brooklyn might be limited to 25 people.

Here in Massachusetts, a reporter asked Baker on Tuesday, December 1 if the court’s ruling means that state officials can’t limit church gatherings the way they did earlier this year.

Baker did not say yes.

A transcript of the exchange follows:


Reporter:  Governor, would you agree that due the Supreme Court ruling last week regarding New York and Governor Cuomo’s limits on the number of people going to services, that that’s off the table – you can’t really tell a church you have to limit the crowd?


Governor Charlie Baker:  So, I mean, every court decision obviously is different. But I think the way we would interpret the Supreme Court’s decision on New York was that New York had one set of standards for formal gatherings generally, and then a different set of standards for religious institutions.

Our rules, for the most part, around distance and around capacity, are the same, whether you’re in a church, or synagogue, or temple, or another form of gathering space – a hotel or a meeting place. And I think, our view is, that as long as you don’t treat houses of worship differently than you treat other organizations with respect to the rules – associated with occupancy levels, and distancing, and face coverings, and all the rest — we believe that’s consistent with that decision.


During his presentation earlier in the press conference, Governor Baker spent 9 minutes 32 seconds talking about the dangers of church gatherings during the upcoming Christmas season – though he never used the word “Christmas.”

Baker said the vast majority of church leaders and church-goers have abided by rules governing social distancing and face masks since churches re-opened in May. But state public health officials have identified coronavirus clusters in certain church groups – including a church in Fitchburg which Baker said was not following many of the new coronavirus rules.

Even so, the governor made it clear he isn’t planning to prohibit Christmas church services – even making a reference to Midnight Mass at the beginning of Christmas Day in Roman Catholic churches.

Responding to a question, Baker said:


Yeah, the big message here is if — if you do – if you go to a midnight service – right? A lot of people here in Massachusetts do.

Wear a mask. Stay with your family. Don’t go to a before or after gathering. Treat it the way you would treat it if it were any other formal activity that was consistent with the kinds of things that you’ve been accustomed to in other settings over the course of the past 10 months.