A standoff ended this week between public health officials cautious about reopening the economy too soon and disgruntled religious leaders who vowed to resume in-person services, which, they say, are essential to their faith.
Congregations backed by the clout of religious liberty activism set a May 31 deadline to resume live worship meetings whether permitted by the state or not. A group of some 2,000 churches statewide, including Godspeak Calvary Chapel in Newbury Park, petitioned for a swifter reopening. But earlier this week the California Department of Public Health released new coronavirus restrictions that allow churches, synagogues and other houses of worship to resume live services with 25% limited capacity or 100 attendees, whichever is fewer. Other restrictions are also in place. The health department will revisit the order in three weeks’ time.
Despite President Trump’s recent proclamation that houses of worship are essential to American life and need to reopen, Gov. Gavin Newsom held fast to his stay-at-home order that included all California religious groups.
A May 22 decision by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld Newsom’s ban on the in-person services, but this week the governor and his health advisors changed course and issued a 13- page order outlining the conditions under which people of faith can resume face-to-face meetings.
The news came as welcome relief to Rabbi Moshe Bryski from Chabad of the Conejo, whose plans to hold a May 29 service for the Jewish holiday of Shavuot appeared to be back on track.
“When it comes to prayer and faith we do have to err on the side of safety. We want to do it right,” said Bryski. Friday’s service at the Agoura Hills synagogue will be held on a reservation-only basis due to limited capacity.
He expects his outdoor seating plan will accommodate about 70 congregants. If the service is indoors, only 25 seats will be available. Shavuot normally draws 120 people, he said.
Chabad’s last live service was March 14. Except for the Sabbath and holidays, Chabad prayer and study sessions have been conducted on Zoom. Bryski has been delivering his Sabbath sermon on Fridays, prior to the Sabbath. This Friday, members get to return in person.
“I want prayer as much as anyone else but I’m not rushing to open,” the rabbi said.
Other houses of worship in the state proposed legal arguments as to why the state’s ban on in-person services violated freedom of religion and assembly.
“For our congregation this is essential to our lives,” Rob McCoy, Godspeak pastor, told The Acorn. “This is essential to us and it’s protected.”
Bryski created a detailed plan for reopening the Chabad that he submitted to state Sen. Henry Stern (D-Calabasas) and members of the Agoura Hills City Council.
In the plan Bryski gave a step-by-step account of how he intends to conduct his May 29 service safely.
“Every chair is more than 6-feet apart; every aisle is greater than 6-feet wide. We will not have usage of prayer books and shawls. We will prepare paper copies of the brief service for one-time usage. We will serve no food,” the plan said. Bryski said he wants his reopening to be respectful of the pain caused by the pandemic.
“I appreciate the need for code, safety, social distancing,” he said. “I am not one who dismisses these needs. I have lost relatives, teachers, mentors and dear friends on the East Coast over the past two months. At the same time Agoura Hills is not Brooklyn and we have two months of knowledge to help create a safe environment.”
Bryski said although regular prayer services can last up to three hours, he is seeking permission on Friday for a 45-minute service in which the Ten Commandments can be read from the Torah scroll.
“There will be a small crowd in the beginning just to get used to things. We need to take it slow,” the rabbi said.
Pastor Bruce Zachary founded Calvary Nexus church of Camarillo in his living room 25 years ago. The church is weathering the storm and preparing to reopen, he said.
“Everything people have been contemplating as reliable and stable in their life has been undermined,” Zachary said. “It’s always been God’s plan to allow there to be suffering in order for there to be redemption. That is the great meta-narrative of the Bible.”
At Grace Church of Simi Valley, lead pastor Jordan Bakker said the stay-at-home order has been a powerful reminder that even though digital communication can be effective in a faith-based setting, the new technology can never replace human contact.
“I’m hoping this is a good reminder that we’re built for faceto face relationships,” Bakker said. “That is how we’re born to communicate.”