Some church leaders question Montana’s quarantine measures

St. Paul Lutheran Church in Havre (Teresa Getten. The Havre Herald)

(Havre Herald) In-person church meetings are not part of the long list of essential activities permitted under Montana Gov. Steve Bullock’s stay-at-home directive meant to combat the spread of COVID-19.

Social gatherings in general are prohibited.

Some faith leaders want to know more about Bullock’s position on the “serious limitations” imposed on Montana churches. Pastor Terry Forke, president of the Montana District of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, which includes Havre’s St. Paul Lutheran Church, has penned a letter he plans to send to the governor next week.

In his two-page letter, Forke, of Billings, acknowledged the governor is dealing with a crisis he hadn’t been prepped for, and asked that God grant him the wisdom to lead during such a time.

Forke wrote that “a health crisis is also a spiritual crisis,” and people need their faith communities to help them cope.

He also expressed concern about the directive’s impact on American liberties.

“Regardless of your intent, and we do put the best construction on your intent, we are very concerned about the unintended consequences of annulling the free exercise of religion for the period of the crisis,” Forke said. “It is not difficult to envision a future crisis that would provide an opportunity to use the current one as precedent.”

Bullock’s directive hinges on Montana’s disaster and emergency laws.

In his letter, Forke proposes that Bullock issue a clarification — “in sensitivity to the Constitutional rights to the free exercise of religion and the right to assemble” — that Montana churches are not compelled to refrain from meeting.

“Rather,” the pastor said, “you could ask the churches to voluntarily consider, out of concern for their neighbors, to practice social distancing, super-cleanliness, and exercise prudence regarding large gatherings.”

Forke elaborated during a phone conversation with The Havre Herald. His proposal would allow churches to meet in person while adhering to social distancing rules.

Forke is gathering signatures from pastors across the state in support of his letter. On Wednesday, he said he had gathered 70 signatures so far.

Forke said he hadn’t expected the momentum his letter has been getting. He said many people he has spoken with are upset about the limitations imposed on churches.

Forke emphasized he was not criticizing the governor.

“We just want clarification,” he said.

Havre Drive-In Easter Service In Limbo, Then Permitted

One Havre pastor who is considering signing the letter, but as of Thursday hadn’t decided, is Brian Barrows, who said he is praying about it.

Barrows and his wife, Vicki Barrows, are co-pastors of Abundant Life Ministries, a charismatic Protestant denominational church.

On Easter Sunday, he held a service for the first time in weeks. He preached on fear and anxiety.

But Sunday’s service wasn’t a typical one. It was held in the parking lot of a former car dealership east of town. The congregants stayed in their vehicles, where they tuned their radios to 106.9 FM to hear Barrows speak. He preached outside, in front of the building, standing on a flatbed trailer and speaking into a microphone. Instead of calling out “hallelujah” or “amen,” those in attendance honked their horns in response to various things he said.

On Thursday, Barrows talked briefly about what it took to make the service happen. He said he ran into a snag with the final approval he needed.

Hill County Health Department Director Kim Larson told him via an email viewed by The Herald that holding a drive-in service probably would violate the governor’s directive. The final decision, he was told, was up to Hill County Attorney Karen Alley.

After her initial reluctance to permit the gathering, Alley told him it wasn’t actually her call to make, Barrows said. He then called the governor’s office to find out who could make the final decision. He explained what he wanted to do and how both the health department and county attorney told him it wasn’t their call.

In an April 9 email between Alley and Barrows, the pastor told Alley that he spoke to “Taylor” in Helena, who told him he would be notified about who in Hill County had decision-making authority.

Within 45 minutes of speaking with Bullock’s office, Barrows said, Alley called and told him to write out his proposal and send it to her.

And on Sunday, about 70 vehicles — far more than the number of congregants the small church sees on a normal Sunday — packed the former Tilleman Dodge dealership parking lot for the service.

Barrows plans on holding similar drive-in services — which he calls counseling sessions — until resuming in-person Sunday services.

Alley did not reply to a request for comment.

Some Faith Leaders Support The Directive

The Herald emailed Bullock’s aides, asking if the governor had plans to make changes regarding church meetings.

In her reply, a Bullock spokesperson said the order doesn’t single out or “explicitly” close churches, but it does limit public gatherings, adding that there are other ways for people to take part in their faith, such as remote services or visits that adhere to social distancing rules.

The spokesperson added, “We’ve been amazed at how Montana churches have stepped up, not only in providing worship services but also in serving as stalwarts of our community and helping those most affected by this crisis.”

The reply included a letter, written March 25 and signed by 11 Catholic, Disciples of Christ, Episcopal, Methodist, Lutheran, United Church of Christ. and Presbyterian leaders, in support of the governor’s directive.

Those faith leaders wanted Bullock to know what they were doing to help flatten the epidemic curve. They had ordered or recommended the halting of in-person worship services; shifted to virtual worship; trained others on social distancing and safe pastoral care; and consulted with members in the field of medicine.

“We are keeping all those who are protecting Montana from the effects of the COVID-19 virus in our constant prayer,” the faith leaders wrote. “We know this is a difficult time.”

Is It Enforceable?

As of Friday, COVID-19 has killed more than 32,000 Americans in about a two-month span. Most of the deaths have been concentrated in clusters around the country, and Montana has had among the lowest number of fatalities. Of the 422 Montanans known to be infected, eight have died. More than half of those infected — 233 — have recovered. A total of 54 patients have been hospitalized for treatment.

Many, including local experts The Herald has spoken with, credit Montana’s staunch adherence to social distancing, made easier by an abundance of space, as a reason why fatalities here have been so low. Churches across the nation, Havre included, have closed their doors as part of the effort to bolster social distance and mitigate the spread.

But some wonder if social distancing and its associated orders are more dangerous than the actual disease. As most of the country continues to quarantine, some have challenged the determinations of what is “essential” and what isn’t. Others have declared that any government order banning gatherings, including church gatherings, is illegal.

The Joint Information Center, a collection of representatives from north-central Montana health facilities that was formed to help coordinate a local response to the coronavirus pandemic, has compiled a pamphlet to answer frequently asked questions about the governor’s directive.

Two of the questions it addresses are how the list of essential businesses was compiled and whether and how the directive can be enforced.

The basis for what’s deemed essential came from the federal government. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security Cybersecurity Infrastructure Security Agency issued a memorandum on identifying essential critical infrastructure workers during the COVID-19 response.

As for the enforcement aspect, the JIC pamphlet is more vague. It says the directive is a public health order that can be legally enforced at local and state levels. It asks people to report anyone in possible violation to the local law enforcement or health department.

Alley said during a Hill County Public Health Board meeting Wednesday that the public health officer and their authorized representatives have the authority to limit contact between people to protect the public from imminent threat.

The governor’s directive provides more details.

“The Department, under the Governor’s direction, is also authorized to impose quarantine and isolation measures to protect public health,” the directive says. It cites a Montana law dubbed “Quarantine and isolation measures” that says someone who doesn’t comply with quarantine measures can be fined between $10 and $100.

The governor’s directive is set to end April 24. During a Friday afternoon press conference, Bullock indicated that state agencies will work next week to set up a phased reopening, assuming the number of new COVID-19 cases continues to drop.