Church Network Unveils Plans to Hold Services May 31 Regardless of Social Distancing Regulations

A network of evangelical churches in California is planning to resume holding in-person church services on May 31 regardless of any public health measures due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Although most California churches have complied with restrictions and adapted by using methods like holding services online, a large number of churches have pledged to stop cooperating by opening their doors at the end of the month. The date of May 31 was chosen because it marks the Christian festival of Pentecost.

Attorney Robert H. Tyler is representing many of the church leaders and says that more than 1,000 pastors have signed a declaration to reopen on the date, The Mercury News reported on Thursday.

The pastors have insisted that in-person religious services should be deemed "essential" despite the health risks posed by large groups of people gathering in enclosed spaces, arguing that churches serve vital needs that require being in close contact.

"You have churches in Santa Ana and Los Angeles feeding people and meeting their needs," Pastor Jim Domen, founder of the group Church United, told The San Bernardino Sun. "How can Costco stay open but not the church?"

Domen, who is also known for promoting discredited "ex-gay" conversion therapies and describes himself as a "former homosexual," claims that his group represents over 1,000 pastors in California.

COVID-19 church protest
A group of protestors flout social distancing guidelines to demand that churches be allowed to reopen amid the COVID-19 pandemic at a protest in San Diego, California on May 1, 2020. SANDY HUFFAKER/AFP/Getty

California Governor Gavin Newsom's four-phase reopening plans allow churches to reopen in the third phase, which is not expected to go into effect soon. However, the governor has not given a firm date for reopening churches and has said "nothing is etched in stone," while indicating that they might be allowed to resume in-person services sooner than some expect.

"Congregations of people from far and wide, coming together, proximate in an enclosed space at large scales is a point of obvious concern and anxiety," Newsom said during a press conference on May 7. "We are working on guidelines for physical distancing and working with faith leaders, talking about unique conditions that exist and reside within their own facilities that may make some further accommodations in that space happen earlier."

Several churches around California have filed lawsuits against Newsom and the state over the temporary suspension of services. So far, courts have sided with the governor.

Churches refusing to abide by health restrictions amid the pandemic have also caused legal headaches for officials in other parts of the country, but some leaders have not backed down in the face of what they believe to be a considerable threat to public health.

On Tuesday, Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot said that she would continue to enforce the city's stay-at-home order through at least May 30, even for churches insisting that they should be allowed to operate regardless.

"We don't want to see a cluster break out because faith leaders believe they have only one way of showing their reverence to the God that they worship," Lightfoot said. "There's lots of ways in which we show our devotion to our faith that don't include physically putting people at risk."

Newsweek reached out to Newsom's office for comment. This article will be updated with any response.