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See the latest news and updates about COVID-19 and its impact on the Charlotte region, the Carolinas and beyond.

With A Judge’s Clearance To Open, North Carolina Churches Weigh Their Options

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Venture Church/Facebook

A federal judge has allowed churches in North Carolina to temporarily open. The ruling made Saturday came just days after a lawsuit was filed by a religious group claiming the governor’s stay-at-home order violated their right to worship freely.

Gov. Roy Cooper’s order blocked churches from holding indoor services for more than 10 people at a time, but now the judge’s ruling lifts that restriction for 14 days.

Venture Church occupies an old textile mill in Dallas near the Gaston County-Lincoln County line. About 700 worshipers filled the auditorium of this Southern Baptist church before North Carolina’s stay-at-home order went into effect. On Palm Sunday, a member died from COVID-19. Pastor Austin Rammell said the man’s wife wants the church to reopen.

“She gets energy being around other believers,” said Rammell

The governor’s stay-at-home order restricts religious services to either be held outside with social distancing, moved online or limited indoors to no more than 10 people.

Federal Judge James C. Dever III’s ruling points out that the limit of up to 10 people is a standard that doesn’t apply to funerals allowing up to 50 people or shopping, which allows up to 50% of a store’s capacity.

Cooper said last week that’s because sitting in a confined space like a sanctuary poses a higher health risk.

“Because we know that inside it is much more likely that you’re going to transmit this virus,” said Cooper, “particularly when you’re sitting or standing in one place for a long period of time.”

The governor went too far, said state Sen. Carl Ford of Rowan County.

“We have the right to worship almighty God as we see fit according to the state Constitution,” said Ford.

The ruling allows churches to open temporarily for 14 days. Cooper said he’s disappointed but will not appeal. University of North Carolina law professor William Marshall doesn’t blame him.

“I think what we’re seeing is that courts might becoming less deferential to governors’ orders around the country the longer this goes on,” said Marshall.

Marshall thinks Cooper has a good case that’s grounded in a Supreme Court decision made in 1905 during a smallpox outbreak that allows the government to act if individual decisions could put the general public at risk.     

“I think what may happen is that if the situation gets worse in North Carolina, or if it’s shown that religious services due tend to lead to outbreaks, that the governor may come back and revisit it,” said Marshall.

The Rev. Abdue Knox leads the Greater Bethel AME Church in east Charlotte. The younger members of his congregation moved services to YouTube and Facebook and set up five different ways for worshipers to give.

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Greater Bethel AME Church in Charlotte posts its Sunday service on Facebook.

“We can't go back to business as usual, we can’t because the world is going to be completely different after this,” said Knox.

The move online is generating more gifts, said Knox, but he has consoled fellow pastors who are struggling.

“A lot of churches are suffering,” said Knox. “And some of them are throwing caution to the wind, and I know of some churches that are still meeting. And they probably have more than the 10.” 

Half of his congregation is elderly and high risk. Knox plans to slowly roll out indoor services.

“As this virus continued to take off and spread, I think we should do everything we can to stop the spread,” said Knox. “And if that means we have to worship the way we do, then I’m absolutely fine with it.”

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Credit The Vine
Pastor Susan Heafner-Heun says she's in no rush to reopen The Vine Methodist Church in Charlotte.

Knox is still thinking about how to reopen, while Rammell, at Venture Church, engineered a detailed plan for his members come back on Sunday. It starts with reserving a seat online.

“When you show up, you’ll have your Eventbrite reservation, we’ve ordered (equipment) to get temperatures, we’re also requiring masks,” said Rammell.

Once inside, there are one-way traffic patterns, everyone will be six feet apart, nobody can shake hands, bathroom attendants will wipe things down and the auditorium will be disinfected after every service.

It’s not the elaborate planning that bothers Pastor Susan Heafner-Heun of The Vine Methodist Church in Charlotte. What bothers her is the lack of connection.

“It’s not a spectator’s sport. Worship is engaging and worship is participatory,” said Heafner-Heun.

To her, it isn’t a church service if there’s no singing, no hugging, no handshakes or children gathering, so she doesn’t see a need to rush back.

She plans to survey her small congregation to see if they’re willing to postpone reopening until the world decides when it’s safe for worshipers to sing, shake hands and sit together.

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