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The Voice of the Black Community


NC faith leaders find new ways to reach their flocks
Published Wednesday, March 25, 2020
by Joe Killian, The Policy Watch

Like most people, Rabbi Fred Guttman has spent the last week adjusting to a strange new life, one upended by COVID-19, the illness caused by the new coronavirus. Accustomed to a full crowd at Greensboro’s Temple Emanuel each Friday and Saturday, Guttman has converted both adult and youth religious services to online-only meetings conducted over the video-conferencing app Zoom. He has also organized a regular virtual lunch on Wednesdays for the elderly members of his community that he calls “a schmooze with the Rabbi.”

When Gov. Roy Cooper issued an executive order last week prohibiting gatherings of 100 people or more (later revised to 50), many faith communities faced a radical rethinking of how they would serve their congregations. Schools have switched to online learning. Restaurants and bars have closed their dining areas, switching to carry-out and delivery service. Apart from criticism from a few conservatives, many people support Cooper’s order, which legal experts say is lawful.

Suspending in-person services wasn’t a difficult decision in the face of a swiftly spreading pandemic, said the Rev. Jennifer Copeland, executive director of the N. .Council of Churches. “If you turn to the Scripture, you see that community is the No. 1 thing that God cares about,” said Copeland, an ordained minister in the United Methodist Church. “I think it’s an imperative for people of faith to stay home and protect their community — and not just your faith community, but the entire community.”

The N.C. Council of Churches represents 18 Christian denominations and over 6,200 congregations serving about 1.5 million North Carolinians. So far, Copeland said, none of them have objected to suspending in-person worship. “My own congregation here in Durham went to an online service,” Copeland said. “There are challenges, but we’ve done it.”

Some older people don’t have the latest technology needed to view worship services on the web, Copeland said. But most of them at least have email, and younger people are helping them .

“Some of them, like my mother, are fortunate to have a grandson who works in the computer tech field,” Copeland said. “I think that’s what these faith communities are all going to do, find a wraparound care solution.”

Some people haven’t fully embraced the governor’s order, at least philosophically. On Facebook, Al Bouldin, a former chairman of the Guilford County Republican Party, denounced the order shortly after it was issued. “No one should have the power to tell us we can’t attend our churches, which is suspending our First Amendment rights,” Bouldin said this week. “I don’t see the level of threat to public health and safety rising to the level of even considering doing away with basic rights. To give recommendations, I think is common sense; the overwhelming majority of people would comply with recommendations. But to make it an order is a different thing.”

However, Bouldin acknowledged that it’s unlikely law enforcement would arrest a pastor or disperse a congregation that chooses to meet in defiance of the order. Lt. Gov. Dan Forest released a scathing statement this week opposing Gov. Cooper’s executive order, which shut down bars and restaurants, except for delivery and carry-out. Forest walked back his criticism after many North Carolinians objected to his stance.

Bill Marshall, the William Rand Kenan Jr. Distinguished Professor at UNC Law School, said while there’s little U.S. Supreme Court case law on such actions, there are some applicable precedents. Cooper’s order does not mention religious gatherings specifically; it treats all gatherings equally. That’s important, Marshall said, because the courts have repeatedly found that religious speech does not enjoy a greater protection than secular speech. But they must be treated equally.

“If the government limits First Amendment rights, it has to do so equally and across the board,” Marshall said. “He seems to be doing it right.”



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