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Churches Defy State Bans And Gather With Congregations

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Is going to church essential? Last week, President Trump announced that, yes, in-person religious services are indeed essential and houses of worship should be able to open their doors if they want to regardless of the pandemic restrictions in their states. And sure enough, over the weekend, several pastors across the country defied their state's bans and gathered with their congregations. For some perspective, we are joined now by Pastor Kris Casey of Worcester, Mass. He recently reached an agreement with city and state officials to hold small Sunday services. Pastor Casey, thanks so much for being with us this morning.

KRIS CASEY: My pleasure.

MARTIN: Can you tell us about your church? What did church services look like before the pandemic?

CASEY: Yeah. The church averaged between 75 and 125 people. Our church is 130 years old, old New England church, beautiful church, beautiful white steeple, beautiful stained-glass windows and sides; just nice services were going on before everything happened.

MARTIN: And then did you go online when the stay-at-home orders came down?

CASEY: Well, we did several things. In our state, it was only allowed 10 people in church. I'm a family of six and - plus our sound guy would - that makes seven. That means there's only three people more that would be allowed in church. And so that was a frustrating thing because being an inner-city ministry, a lot of our folks didn't have online access, didn't have computers. So right then and there, we were losing, you know, 20%, 30% of our church who didn't have access to that stuff. That was a very difficult decision.

MARTIN: So did you go ahead with online services or did you not even try?

CASEY: No. We had online services already set up, and we went ahead and did online services. But like I said, we're already missing a huge part of our church. And so for me, that wasn't a good thing.

MARTIN: So a few weeks ago when Massachusetts restricted gatherings to under 10 people, you went ahead and held services, and then you were fined $300 for defying regulations. Eventually, you reach this temporary agreement with state and local officials that allows you to hold in-person services. Can you explain your argument to them? Was it just that not enough of your population had access?

CASEY: Sure. It was - the argument was actually several things folded. No. 1, I didn't try to sneak around and do it. I sent a letter to the governor. I sent a letter to the city manager and the chief of police and the mayor and told them exactly what I was going to be doing and the exact protocols that I was going to be doing and why we were going to be having services. And the following - we had services that Sunday. The following Monday, I got a letter from the city manager telling me that I needed to stop doing it. And I told the chief right then and there I'm going to continue to do services because this is the community God has called me to reach. And then I had service on Wednesday and then Sunday. The following Monday, I ended up getting a $300 fine. And then I had service again on Wednesday. And then the city manager and mayor went to the courthouse and had to figure out what they were going to charge me with. And so then Monday, I received a criminal complaint against the city. Upon receiving the criminal complaint, I took that to my attorneys, and that's when we filed a federal lawsuit against the state, against the governor and against chief of police and the city manager for violations of our First Amendment rights.

MARTIN: So let me ask you, though, I mean, we heard Mike Pence say this, the vice president, over these restrictions on houses of worship. The book of Matthew says that God is present whenever two or more people are gathered together. Are you concerned about the level of risk that you might be exposing your congregants to, your community to, by opening up services?

CASEY: We are absolutely concerned about that risk. And if you understood the last articles that we had done, we had ServiceMaster come in before each service and clean our service, professionally clean the whole church. And we did that before every service for the total of about six or eight weeks - six or eight services rather, which cost our church close to $10,000 for them to do that. We did that because we realized we could do it safer, more sanitized and more socially distanced than all the big-box retailers that are out there. And I knew that because I'd gone out to the retailers and saw what they were doing and thought they can be open to whatever capacity they are, but our church is limited to 10. So that really bothered me. And so I said we can do it better than they did. And so that's what we did. We had people come in with - you know, they were - had their temperatures taken with touchless thermometers. Everybody wore masks. Everybody wore gloves. Everybody stood 6 feet apart. Everybody was ushered to their seat. And so we did it better than what they were doing. And I was thankful that the governor actually took our playbook what we were doing and made that the Massachusetts mandate. And I was also thankful for the president that he actually came out and said church was essential because that's what we've been saying for four weeks.

MARTIN: Just briefly, if an outbreak increases, if something else happens and the virus spreads, will you close in-person services?

CASEY: I don't think we're going to close in-person services because, like I said, we are doing it safer and cleaner and more sanitized and socially distanced than any place out there. And so that's a decision I'll have to make if that time comes. But as of right now, we're still going to have church.

MARTIN: Reverend Kris Casey of Adams Square Baptist Church in Worcester, Mass., we appreciate it.

CASEY: Thank you. Have a blessed day. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.