ROANOKE, Va. – As Virginia Governor Ralph Northam’s new COVID-19 restrictions rolled out Monday, so did his message to the faith community.
“This year we need to think about what is truly the most important thing. Is it the worship or the building? For me, God is wherever you are,” said Northam while announcing the new restrictions on Thursday.
The 10-person cap on social gatherings does not apply to religious services, so Northam is pleading with faith leaders to take caution and lead by example.
“Worship with a mask on is still worship. Worship outside or worship online is still worship,” said Northam.
Some in the faith community are fighting back, including Los Angeles Bishop Robert Barron, in a video posted on Facebook.
“Why is the governor of Virginia, a secular, civic authority lecturing us on the nature of worship?” asked Barron. “Sitting in a pew is not just a pew, it means sitting in a community, which also matters very much for Catholics.”
He said he’s concerned about the influence from a secular government.
“Now I know you might say, ‘Look, we’re in the middle of COVID and we’ve got to make adjustments and all that,’ said Barron. “But it just concerns me as someone who worries about the freedom of the church.”
Houses of worship across the county have filed lawsuits over COVID-19 restrictions. Others adapted by holding drive-up services, sermons outdoors or virtually.
Second Presbyterian Church in Roanoke is offering virtual sermons and limiting the number of in-person worshipers, practicing social distancing and requiring masks.
Associate Pastor Elizabeth Link said her church appreciates the governor’s guidance.
“We welcome the gifts that science have to bring. We want to listen to our doctors and scientists and we know that those are the people advising our leadership,” said Link.
Outbreaks have been linked to worship services in the Commonwealth. Northam said not all abide by the guidelines.
“They don’t use distancing inside the church, they’re not wearing masks and quite frankly, we know that a lot of the spread is coming from this,” said Northam.
However, Northam said it’s tough to enforce the guidelines citing a Supreme Court ruling that temporarily blocked New York from enforcing capacity restrictions at houses of worship.
“Even though Christmas will look different,” said Link. “I think we need to keep the faith and know that we are not alone in this.”