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KEVIN LEININGER: If we don’t live by bread alone, churches are as ‘essential’ as groceries

The Rev. Kip Rush delivers his sermon in a sanctuary filled with mostly empty pews during a service at Brenthaven Cumberland Presbyterian Church in Brentwood, Tenn. The church decided to broadcast the service instead of holding a service with the entire congregation because of the COVID-19 coronavirus. (AP photo)
The Rev. Douglas Punke consecrates communion at Zion Lutheran Church in Fort Wayne. You can't distribute communion over the internet. (Courtesy Photo)
Curtis Hill
Dr. Deborah McMahan
Matthew Harrison
Kevin Leininger

Last Sunday’s bulletin at Zion Lutheran Church in Fort Wayne included an admonition to practice “social distancing” in the pews, information about how to deal with COVID-19 both physically and spiritually, a “prayer for our nation, under duress” and a promise that “We are not shutting down church unless ordered to for a time by our political leaders.”

Most of my fellow Zion members never got to see it, however, because late Saturday afternoon Health Commissioner Dr. Deborah McMahan issued an order “prohibiting church gatherings in Allen County, including those held in non-church venues” in an effort to slow the spread of the virus, effective Sunday morning.

“While we understand people are still in need of spiritual guidance during these difficult times, we need to be sure everyone grasps the importance of social distancing and avoiding any non-essential gatherings,” McMahan stated. “Online, webinars, Facebook or other social media platforms are all wonderful ways to meet the spiritual needs of our community and we encourage those methods.”

The order generated both concern and confusion — two subsequent clarifications were issued — because McMahan’s “prohibition” of religious gatherings also stated that “Multiple small groups at the same venue must not include an aggregate total of more than 10 persons.”

What’s more, McMahan merely “recommended” against meetings, weddings and other public gatherings of more than 10 people — one reason several local, state and federal officials challenged the order and asked Indiana Attorney General Curtis Hill to weigh in. My own pastor at Zion, the Rev. Douglas Punke, wrote a letter to McMahan suggesting “You cannot make your case for a ‘compelling reason’ not to assemble if only churches are being prohibited.”

Hill essentially agreed, writing in a letter to McMahan this week that “absent scientific evidence that COVID-19 spread more quickly in religious gatherings than others, your order amounts to unconstitutional religious discrimination.”

In one sense, the issue was rendered moot by the order Gov. Eric Holcomb issued this week asking Hoosiers to limit contact to groups of 10 or less and to stay home until April 7 unless they are involved in certain businesses or functions. Religious entities are considered “essential services” under the order so long as they “adhere to the CDC’s guidance on social gatherings.” In response to Holcomb’s order, McMahan repealed her directive effective at 11:59 p.m. Tuesday and “does not believe a response (to the concerns raised by Hill and others) is necessary at this point,” according to the Health Department.

But with all due respect to Dr. McMahan, clarification is very much needed because, as Hill wrote, government’s legitimate expectation that “all Hoosiers make sacrifices to prevent the spread of COVID-19” must be tempered by its “continued respect for civil rights, including the free exercise of religion.” I don’t for a moment believe McMahan intended her order to be anti-religious, but I do believe public health is not the only issue that deserves to be protected.

Watching church on TV or the internet is better than nothing but is no substitute for being there, especially for denominations that administer sacraments such as Holy Communion, which Lutherans, Catholics and some others believe confers forgiveness of sins through the body and blood of Christ himself.

“Making recommendations on sacraments does exceed my authority and expertise,” said McMahan. “But I will say we are all having to think outside the box.”

There is, of course, much debate about this even among Christians. Roman Catholic churches throughout Indiana ended all public masses earlier this month, and the Rev. Rob Schenck of the Dietrich Bonhoffer Institute wrote that “the well being of others is not a game . . . we must be obedient to the central commands of our Christian faith, one of which is to love our neighbors as ourselves.”

On the other hand, E.R. Reno, editor of the conservative religious publication First Things, has written that “Closing churches and cancelling services betrays (their) duty of spiritual care.”

Zion’s former pastor, Matthew Harrison, now president of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, put it well: “We must, in love, be patient with one another as we strive to be both faithful and responsible.”

As Pastor Punke noted in his letter to McMahan, “Having gone to the grocery I can tell you that what we were planning to do was far superior to what I saw there (in terms of crowd size and social distancing.)” As Christ himself said, man does not live by bread alone — reason enough for religious groups and government to work together to ensure believers get the spiritual nourishment they need in a socially responsible way.

This column is the commentary of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of The News-Sentinel. Email Kevin Leininger at kleininger@news-sentinel.com or call him at 461-8355.

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