As of Friday, nearly half of the states in the US were subject to stay-at-home orders of varying degrees in attempts to slow the spread of the coronavirus pandemic, and the federal government has advised against holding any gatherings of more than 10 people. Yet while many churches, temples, and other houses of worship have switched to virtual religious services, some Americans say their congregations are still gathering.
According to a poll conducted this week by three political scientists and provided to BuzzFeed News, 22% of respondents said that they had been “encouraged” to attend in-person worship “because of the virus,” and 17% said they were still attending worship services in person.
The survey polled 1,038 people from all over the country, who said they attend a house of worship “more often than never.” The poll-takers were from both rural and urban areas, and spanned demographics that reflect the national population. The survey, conducted over three days (Monday through Wednesday) by Paul Djupe (Denison University), Ryan Burge (Eastern Illinois University), and Andrew Lewis (University of Cincinnati), included responses about Sunday service attendance. The survey results had about a 3% margin of error.
The vast majority of the people who responded to the poll — 88% — said that either their religious services had been canceled or their house of worship had been closed due to the coronavirus.
However, 22% said they had still been encouraged to attend worship in person. Djupe speculated that some of these respondents, and some of the 17% who said they were still attending in-person services, may have been referring to smaller worship groups outside of their churches or temples, though this was not a question that had been asked in the survey.
The results of this poll come days after news broke that nearly three dozen people who attended a recent church event at First Assemblies of God Church in Greers Ferry, Arkansas, had tested positive for COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, the Arkansas Democrat Gazette reported Monday. The event was held in early March, and 31 of the 34 people who tested positive are either on the church staff or are members of the church. And on Friday, a church in the Chicago suburbs told ABC’s local affiliate that following a service on March 15, 43 people had reported symptoms related to COVID-19, and 10 people had tested positive for the disease so far.
While many states’ stay-at-home orders apply to houses of worship, at least six states have included some sort of exemption. New York, Pennsylvania, Michigan, California, Louisiana, and Ohio have all issued stay-at-home orders at the beginning of this week or last, but each has a specific stipulation pertaining to houses of worship, either designating them as “essential,” saying that they are not ordered to be closed, or exempting them from penalties. For example, Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer on Monday banned all gatherings outside the home, but added that “a place of religious worship, when used for religious worship, is not subject to penalty" for violating the order.
In several cases, churches and religious leaders have taken advantage of these exemptions, only to be reprimanded by the state’s leaders and law enforcement. Louisiana’s stay-at-home order includes exemptions for travel "to and from an individual's place of worship,” but when a Baton Rouge pastor hosted a service of more than 300 people Tuesday night, local news channel WTVY reported, police showed up at the church to break up the gathering. The pastor, Tony Spell, told CNN that he believes coronavirus to be “politically motivated” and claimed that more than 1,000 people attended his Sunday service.
Ohio evangelical megachurch Solid Rock, which has hosted several events in support of President Donald Trump, held two services Sunday, and publicly stated on their Facebook page Friday that they plan to keep their doors open unless the “laws of our nation should ever change with respect to our first amendment right to assemble.”
“If there ever was a time in the history of our world when we all need God’s help, it is now,” the post continued. “For that reason, we believe that the doors of Solid Rock Church should remain open.”
Religious gatherings were explicitly exempted by Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine’s Sunday order against gatherings of more than 10 people. However, DeWine also tweeted a plea to religious leaders Sunday.
“We did not order religious organizations to close, but my message to EVERYONE is that this is serious,” DeWine wrote. “When you are coming together, whether in a church or wherever - this is dangerous.”
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