Diocese of Duluth

Catholic and some Lutheran churches in Minnesota said Thursday they will resume worship services for their congregations, at 33 percent capacity.

Services will start on Tuesday, with May 31, Pentecost Sunday, the first day of Sunday services, they said in a letter to Gov. Tim Walz.

Representatives of the churches have committed to instituting rigorous social distancing and hygiene protocols to prevent the spread of COVID-19. (See Phase III of attached document.)

The Minnesota Catholic Conference and The Lutheran Church - Missouri Synod in Minnesota sent Walz separate letters Thursday announcing that they would resume worship services on May 26 despite the current COVID-19 executive order.

Locally, St. Thomas Aquinas Church, a member of the Duluth Diocese, is expected to resume worship services.

"Our archbishop, our bishops, and our administrator, our Administrator Fr. Jim Bissonette - made a decision to disagree with the lack of information for Governor Walz connected with other decisions that he decided to open," Father Ben Hadrich, of St. Thomas Aquinas Church, posted on social media.

Bissonette said it's unfortunate the steps taken Thursday were necessary, describing the steps to fight spread of the virus they have taken in the past.

"We have voluntarily lifted the obligation to attend Sunday Mass and suspended the celebration of Masses publicly," he said in a statement. "We have cooperated with the governor and his administration. The lifting of the obligation remains in force, but with our governor easing restrictions on non-essential businesses, it seems right to ease back into worship and church life, as well. We see that as essential for us."

Bissonette said with the strict protocols the churches have put in place, officials believe it is safe to begin public Masses, in a limited way.

"I am disappointed that despite our best efforts to work with the governor, we remain under severe restrictions for an indefinite period of time," he continued. "... the spiritual life of many is suffering. We are simply asking that we be allowed at least the same opportunities for gathering to exercise our religious beliefs as businesses around us have to conduct commerce.”

Meanwhile, a news release from the The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty said at issue is the latest order, which allows retailers to operate at 50 percent capacity but caps church worship services at 10 people. In addition, the state's latest reopening order allows the Mall of America to open its doors to those seeking retail therapy but disallows churches from providing spiritual healing to their congregations.

The Becket Fund sent a letter to the governor and Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison explaining why continuing to keep churches closed violates the First Amendment. The Catholic and Lutheran churches are also represented by Sidley Austin LLP law firm.

The The Becket Fund said that even Minnesota casinos are reopening starting May 26.

“Darkness and despair have taken hold of so many of our fellow Americans in the face of the economic and social hardship of the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Archbishop Bernard Hebda of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis. “Faith has always been a source of comfort and strength and now more than ever it is of the utmost importance that we are able to meet the spiritual needs of our community.”

“Throughout this crisis, we have been committed to modeling Christ’s love by protecting people from the spread of illness. That’s why it is so disheartening that the Governor has subordinated our spiritual well-being to the economic well-being of the State,” said Rev. Lucas Woodford, president of the Minnesota South District of The Lutheran Church - Missouri Synod. “Now that the state has deemed the risk of spreading coronavirus low enough to reopen non-essential business, we respectfully believe that it is our right and duty to safely resume public ministry to the faithful even without the support of the governor.”

Since the beginning of Minnesota’s stay-at-home order, suicide hotlines have seen spikes in calls as high as 300 percent in parts of the state, as well as a 25 percent increase in calls about domestic violence, reports the news release. "Millions of Americans seek comfort and strength in their faith communities, which also serve as safe spaces for victims of domestic violence and those suffering with addictions," the release said.

In March, well before statewide stay-at-home orders came into effect, both the Minnesota Catholic Conference and The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod voluntarily suspended in-person worship services to preserve the health and safety of their communities. On May 7, and again on May 16, the churches presented Walz with proposed protocols for resuming in-person worship services in line with the recommendations of the World Health Organization and United States Centers for Disease Control.

“If malls, casinos, liquor stores, bars, and restaurants are reopening, why can’t Minnesota churches?” said Eric Rassbach, vice president and senior counsel at Becket. “Our Constitution stands for ‘equal justice under law’ and imposing a special disability on churches is anything but. Governor Walz and Attorney General Ellison should ensure equal treatment for churches and houses of worship—especially because they are crucial to helping our nation overcome this crisis.”

The head of the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice this week sent a letter to California Governor Gavin Newsom explaining that under federal law California could not force houses of worship to lag behind other organizations during the reopening process.

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