April 1, 2020

Florida Keeps Strict Church Service Limitations in Effect
Despite Essential Tag as Turner Invokes Inferno Analogy

By Mike Hailey
Capitol Inside Editor

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis appeared to be following the lead of his Texas counterpart when he deemed worship services at churches to be an essential activity that's exempt from a statewide shutdown that he imposed on Wednesday as the death rate from the coronavirus soared in the state that he leads.

But the designation in the DeSantis order isn't expected to have the same far-reaching effect as the one that Governor Greg Abbott announced on Tuesday as far as the size of potential public gatherings in houses of worship in the two southern states are concerned.

Churches in Florida will be subject to a previous executive order that legally prohibits them from holding services that more than 10 people attend. A similar statewide decree that the Republican governor in Texas issued the previous day doesn't appear to be put a ceiling on the number of people who can attend services in traditional fashion in person if their churches claim that they're unable to conduct them online instead.

The green light that Abbott gave for public worship has encountered immediate heat from local leaders in major Texas cities like Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner, a former Democratic state lawmaker who suggested today that the gubernatorial exemption could be tantamount to a tunnel into a death trap for Texans who take advantage of it.

"You're engaging in socializing, hugging, hand-clapping, sitting next to one another, then you are putting yourself in harm's way," Turner said. "I don't care who tells you to go in there. Exercise some common sense.

"This is not the time to change course when you're still in the midst of the storm," the Houston mayor added. "And I know the faith-based community understands that. So, you know, I shouldn't have to tell you that if there's a building on fire, don't go into the building."

But the debate on access to churches during the coronavirus crisis isn't folding along partisan lines as some might expect.

Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer, who's a Democrat, announced that church services would be exempt from an executive order that limits public gatherings to 50 people in her state. Whitmer indicated that she'd acquiesced to pleas from Republican state lawmakers in Michigan to allow churches to remain open for worship despite the dangers that doing so could pose to the public health.

Democratic Governors Laura Kelly of Kansas and Michelle Luhan Grisham of New Mexico also excluded houses of worship from bans on mass gatherings of more than 10 and five people in their respective states. Both fear that their states could face costly legal challenges on constitutional grounds without the loopholes on public gatherings.

While churches in Florida won't have carte blanche for public services, the DeSantis classification of them as an essential activity appeared to overturn a local rule that had culminated this week in the arrest of a pastor at a Tampa megachurch to which hundreds of people have flocked for Sunday services in defiance of the restriction on public gatherings.

The minister in question, Ronald Howard-Browne, has been one of President Donald Trump's most ardent followers in the evangelical community. Howard-Browne had assured the members of his church that the president has said it would be safe to meet in person. But Howard-Browne has indicated that he has no plans to abide by the temporary limitations on mass gatherings even though Trump has changed his tune substantially on the need for social isolation in the past week.


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