Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz Questions Whether Worship Is Essential

In this Feb. 27, 2011 photo, Salome Desta of Ethiopia and other members of the congregation worship during a church service at Pentecostal Tabernacle in Cambridge, Mass. The small historic black church, sitting between MIT and Harvard, has attracted students from Asia, Africa, Europe and Latin America to rejuvenate a …
AP Photo/Winslow Townson

Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz told reporters this weekend it is not clear that worship constitutes something essential, challenging President Trump’s assertion it is.

“I think the case that the president is making and that may be up for debate in this country of deeming houses of worship essential, essential services and that’s one that we take into consideration,” the Democrat governor said during an hour-long briefing on opening up religious services during the coronavirus lockdown.

During the briefing, in which he was joined by state Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm, Gov. Walz announced new guidelines for religious services, saying he would allow houses of worship to reopen at 25 percent occupancy.

The governor’s decision came on the heels of confrontation with the Catholic Bishops of Minnesota, who announced last week that public Masses would resume as of May 26, in defiance of the governor’s restrictions.

Many people of faith “were disappointed in Governor Walz’s May 13 announcement that he would end the Stay-at-Home order to allow more commerce but prohibit religious gatherings of more than ten people,” an order that “defies reason,” declared the bishops in a May 20 letter.

Insisting that the life of faith is “essential,” the bishops declared that they have given Catholic parishes “permission for the resumption of the public celebration of Mass on Tuesday, May 26, which will give us time to be ready for the celebration of Pentecost on May 31.”

“Parishes will be required to follow the strict protocols we have published for sanitation and social distancing and will have to limit attendance to one-third of the seating capacity of the church,” they said. “No one will be obliged to attend, as the bishops of Minnesota will continue to dispense from the obligation to attend Sunday Mass.”

The bishops insisted that they have striven to work collaboratively with the Walz Administration as well as highlighting their overarching concern for the spiritual and physical well-being of their flock. They also noted the injustice of the governor’s arbitrary targeting of religious practice for especially strict regulation.

The letter said that both the Catholic hierarchy and “some Lutheran colleagues” had submitted a joint plan to the Governor on May 8 detailing their sanitation measures and proposing a cap on church attendance limited to 33 percent of building capacity, a plan that the governor rejected.

“Given our willingness to coordinate with the Governor, we are especially disappointed that his most recent order (20-56) does not address both the vital importance that faith plays in the lives of Americans, especially in this time of pandemic, and the fundamental religious freedom possessed by houses of worship that allows our country to thrive,” the bishops declared.

“The Governor’s remarks today further underscored a failure to appreciate the role of our Church and other faith groups in serving the community,” they said. “The human cost to this pandemic has been extraordinary, not just in terms of lives lost to the virus but the rapidly growing problems of job loss, depression, crime and violence, and substance abuse.”

The bishops affirm their unanimous “conviction” that they can safely resume public Masses in accordance with both our religious duties and with accepted public health and safety standards.

The bishops also stated that they had suspended the public celebration of Mass “not because we were compelled to do so, but because we judged that the circumstances required it.”

“We are blessed to live in a nation that guarantees the free exercise of religion,” they said. “This right can only be abridged for a compelling governmental interest, and only in a way that is narrowly tailored to be the least restrictive means of achieving the desired end.”

“We think that the executive order issued last Wednesday fails this test. An order that sweeps so broadly that it prohibits, for example, a gathering of 11 people in a Cathedral with a seating capacity of several thousand defies reason,” they add.

Following the governor’s press conference on Saturday, St. Paul & Minneapolis Archbishop Bernard Hebda said he was pleased with Walz’s change of heart.

“I am so thankful for the honest, open, and fast-paced dialogue we had over these past days and am pleased we could come to a consensus about a reasonable and safe path forward that allows a greater number of people to safely return to worship,” Hebda wrote.


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