A bill signed into law last week by Governor Chris Sununu puts churches and other places of worship under the category of “essential businesses” during the state of emergency.
The legislation, House Bill 542, was sponsored by three Republican House members, including Travis O’Hara, who represents Belknap 9, Keith Ammon, who represents Hillsborough 40, and Jim Kofalt, who represents Hillsborough 4, which includes Francestown, Lyndeborough, Wilton and Greenville.
The bill states that during a state of emergency, such as that declared during the COVID-19 pandemic, religious organizations can continue to operate “to the same extent or more” than other essential services are. allowed.
The bill clarifies that the government is authorized to require religious organizations to comply with ‘neutral health, safety or occupation requirements’, which apply to all organisations, businesses and services essential, unless it imposes a “substantial burden”.
Thus, churches would be required to comply with mask mandates or occupancy limits, as long as it was the least restrictive avenue available to maintain public safety.
Ammon said he heard from many pastors as well as church members who wanted to see churches designated as “essential.”
“Religious freedom is as important a right as freedom of expression,” Ammon said. But, he said, that designation appeared to be “set aside” during the pandemic.
“At the societal level, we must remember that freedom of religion gives us freedom of conscience and the ability to believe in an authority higher than the state. We must protect religious freedom,” Ammon said. “Pastors who testified in support of this bill said it was essential services – it is their job to care for the flock and benefit the community and to offer resources and support. comfort in times of stress.”
Ammon noted that nothing in the law prohibits religious organizations from making the decision to close during a state of emergency — it simply put the decision directly in their hands.
Like many organizations and businesses in March 2020, most places of worship closed early in the pandemic as the state of New Hampshire issued orders to limit public gatherings and shut down non-essential services. Some businesses have been designated “essential,” including retail stores, manufacturers, grocery stores and hardware stores.
Reverend Daniel Osgood of Greenfield Covenant Church said it had become an oft-told joke among congregations: “Liquor stores are essential, but churches are not.”
Greenfield Covenant Church closed in-person services for two and a half months in 2020 and began reopening for in-person services, with restrictions on June 1, 2020.
Osgood said if the law had been in place before this March, it’s likely the church wouldn’t have closed completely for those two months, but said it wouldn’t have been business as usual no more. He said some of the measures taken by the church when it first opened, such as providing additional services to divide the congregation into smaller crowds and offering an online option for those who wanted to stay at home , could have allowed them to continue those in person. services throughout these first months.
“As far as the bill goes, I think it’s basically a good idea and a good thing,” Osgood said.
But, he says, he has concerns.
During the first phase of the pandemic shutdown, Osgood said there were churches that continued to operate without significant precautions, and he disagreed with that approach.
Greenfield Covenant Church is back to in-person services, and worshipers are not required to wear a mask, but the church is setting aside a section of the building for those who wish to wear a mask, and coffee time and Children’s programming is still on hold, with plans to restart in the fall, Osgood said.
Reverend Traceymay Kalvaitis, pastor of the Dublin Community Church and the Community Church of Harrisville, said she doesn’t think her church communities would have approached their response to the pandemic differently if given the choice.
Both churches have received guidance from the United Church of Christ, most of which have followed, but the real decision-makers in the church are an elected board of deacons, who are members of the church’s congregation and represent their will. .
Both churches, Kalvaitis said, have been cautious about reopening, holding outdoor services in the fall of 2020 and moving away completely for the winter, until the weather allows outdoor services again. Congregations only started holding services in the church again this summer, Kalvaitis said, a move unaffected by government restrictions, which would have allowed indoor services much sooner.
“The work of the church is essential. The bill recognizes this fact. In a state of emergency, the work of the church becomes even more relevant. Food distribution, coordination of volunteer efforts, and pastoral support to individuals and families are just a few examples of essential services provided by churches. In some traditions, the physical gathering and sharing of the communion rite, in particular, is considered essential,” Kalvaitis said.
But, Kalvaitis said, she worries about the possible repercussions.
“What concerns me is the potential for what looks like a protection of religious freedom to enable licentious decision-making which could, in turn, have profound negative impacts on the health of our communities,” he said. said Kalvaitis.
Pastor Kerry W. Richardson, acting pastor of Wilton’s Second Congregational Church, said his church also didn’t start in-person services again until June, and he said they haven’t ruled out fully recover remotely if cases of COVID-19 continue to be detected in Wilton.
“It wouldn’t have made any difference to me,” Richardson said of the new law. “I have a congregation – like most major denominations right now – of a certain age, and many are medically compromised.”
Richardson said while the transition hasn’t always been easy with her older members, the move to Zoom services has engaged the whole congregation. He said technology has created a way to continue worshiping from a distance.