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McMahan right to stop in-person church services

Give Allen County Health Commissioner Dr. Deborah McMahan a break.

Some local and state officials are accusing the head of the Allen County Board of Health of attacking the rights of area churches to practice their religious freedoms.

McMahan issued an order last week closing the county’s churches through April 11 in response to public confusion about the nationwide directive to observe social distancing. Some churches were still holding services, while others were trying to compromise by breaking into smaller groups that still created high risk of spreading the COVID-19 coronavirus.

McMahan’s order on March 21 was meant to emphasize the need to limit groups to 10 or fewer people at a time when efforts across the country have been made to institute urgent measures to stop person-to-person spread of the virus.

But a letter to the Indiana attorney general dated March 22 and signed by two Fort Wayne councilmen and three state representatives claims McMahan’s order violates the Indiana constitution and beseeches him to place a stay on the order to allow churches to keep their doors open.

We are as committed to religious freedom as anyone, but how is closing churches any more of an infringement on our freedom than closing schools and businesses and canceling sports and entertainment events to prevent the congregating of large groups of people? Now the governor has issued a shelter-in-place order to make us all stay at home except for “essential” reasons.

The issue is not blocking our freedoms but preserving our health and safety.

The desperate measures that have been taken in recent weeks have been designed to get people to take the coronavirus pandemic seriously. In spite of warnings and repeated directions about social distancing, hand-washing and other measures to stop the spread of the virus, many people were continuing to carry on their daily lives as usual.

The governor’s order Monday to stay at home in itself concludes that gatherings, such as church services, are at this time non-essential risks of conveying the coronavirus to others.

Many churches had already been complying with the need for social distancing by closing on their own while continuing to conduct services on Facebook Live, online streaming and YouTube. But some were still not complying, and McMahan’s order was simply an attempt to emphasize the importance of doing so. She acted under the authority of Indiana Code Section 16-20-1-24, and Section 16-41-9-1.6

However, the letter to Attorney General Curtis Hill — signed by City Councilmen Jason Arp and Paul Ensley as well as state representatives Christopher Judy (District 83), Bob Morris (District 85) and Christy Stutzman (District 49) — challenged that authority.

“The citizens of the State of Indiana expect that the government officials elected, or appointed by those they elect, would uphold their oaths to protect and defend the Constitution, even in times of great difficulty and confusion,” said the letter.

The letter (which cites Article 1, Section 31 in the Constitution regarding Right of Assemblage, and Article 1 Section 2. Right to Worship) asks Hill “to intercede on behalf of the people of Allen County and place a stay on this order, thus allowing churches to keep their doors open.”

Even U.S. Rep. Jim Banks, R-3rd, responded to McMahan’s order by saying the health department was “going way beyond the guidance issued by the Governor or the President’s administration” and that our state’s lawmakers should address the issue. His post said the health department action was “a TERRIBLE precedent.”

But churches are not being singled out in the effort to prevent people from congregating in groups. Most local clergy have been willingly cooperative in adjusting to the emergency, and have creatively made provisions to meet the spiritual needs of their congregations.

And, after all, the health department order last week also included the prohibiting of other “nonessential gatherings and situations at which greater than 10 people congregate together,” not just churches, “but gatherings such as conferences, festivals, parades, concerts, recreational facilities, weddings, fraternal/benevolent organization meetings, recovery group meetings, prayer groups, book clubs, and family reunions or parties for birthdays, baby showers, etc.”

McMahan’s order pointed out, “Because even people without symptoms can transmit the disease, and because evidence shows the disease is easily spread, gatherings can result in preventable transmission of the virus.”

Indiana Health Commissioner Dr. Kristina Box suggested Friday in the Northwest Indiana Times that 1% of Hoosiers may already be infected with the COVID-19 virus, which would number 67,000. If she’s correct, these measures are even more important.

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