Indiana’s places of worship can resume in-person services -- using social distancing guidelines -- starting May 8, under Stage 2 of Gov. Eric Holcomb’s plan to reopen the state. This week, Holcomb said those places of worship would act as a “test or control group” that would help inform the state’s response to COVID-19.
“We didn’t want to go all the way across the board and open it all up,” Holcomb said Tuesday. “We knew just how important our spiritual guidance is to our wellness, in addition to our fiscal and physical and fiscal wellbeing.”
But some Greater Lafayette faith leaders say it’s not yet safe for congregants to come together in person -- and they’ll keep holding virtual services for now, which the state also recommends.
Faith Church Pastor Steve Viars says his church -- which averages 2,000 attendees across seven Sunday services -- wants to guard against endangering both church members and all the people with whom they might come into contact.
“I think we have a higher level of responsibility,” Viars says. “I think the larger the church congregation is in Tippecanoe County, the more important it is for us to be very, very careful, because of what the impacts of a poor decision could be on the rest of the community.”
Viars says different faith traditions emphasize loving one’s neighbor, and thinks the governor’s reliance on religious leaders and groups to test how other gatherings might function makes sense.
“If we’re living in a way that’s consistent with what we say we believe, if it’s going to work anywhere that is bringing people back together in larger groups, it ought to work in a faith group,” Viars says.
Regarding the governor’s remarks, Rabbi Mike Harvey from West Lafayette’s Temple Israel says he wants to “give people the benefit of the doubt.”
“But calling a group of people a test or control group when lives are at stake?” Harvey says. “It’s not the rhetoric I would have chosen.”
Ultimately, Harvey says, the decision to allow churches to physically reopen is “highly irresponsible.”
Holcomb also said religious leaders needed to be “responsible for their congregations.” Viars and Harvey both say they’ll make their decisions in concert with others, including health and government officials and the governing bodies of their religious organizations.
“And a good religious leader relies upon those smart people around him or her to help make difficult decisions like this, especially in regards to life and death,” Harvey says. “I mean, that’s what this is. This is in regards to life and death. There’s no -- we should not be standing alone during this period.”
Harvey says his congregation will continue virtual services through May, and they’ll reevaluate in-person services for June at the end of the month.
“We’d have to look at how things are going in reality, what our neighbors are doing, and what our governing bodies are saying to do,” Harvey says. “So the Union for Reform Judaism and the Central Conference of American Rabbis are all recommending that we don’t rush this. That we stay virtual.”
“[Gov. Holcomb] is clearly respecting religious liberty, and I’m glad for that,” Viars says. “But I think the assumption is pastors and local church leaders have a greater concern for caring for our church members physically even than the government. And so we’re going to do everything we can not just to minister to the souls of our congregation, but also to protect their bodies.”
Viars says Faith Church will be releasing a draft of their reopening plan, which includes a potential start date for in-person services on May 31. The number of services would be increased and staggered to spread out attendance, and specific services would be geared for families with children and those with higher COVID-19 risk factors -- though Viars said he encouraged those members to participate in remote services, which the church will continue to offer.
Harvey, who is also the head of the Interfaith Leaders of Greater Lafayette, says the group will be releasing a statement urging its member churches to continue to provide virtual services for now.