HILLVIEW, Ky. – As hymns sang out Easter Sunday from a large outdoor speaker overlooking the Maryville Baptist Church parking lot, two Kentucky State troopers placed quarantine notices on parishioners’ cars and wrote down their license numbers.
Inside the church, roughly 50 worshippers ignored Gov. Andy Beshear’s order against mass gatherings during the coronavirus pandemic so they could attend services together on Christianity’s holiest day.
Several said as they left that they had no intention of abiding by the notice on their windshields that called for a 14-day self-quarantine or face the threat of “further enforcement measures.”
Exactly what troopers will do with those license numbers or what steps Beshear will take next wasn’t immediately clear Sunday.
What is clear is that the church’s pastor, the Rev. Jack Roberts, has no intention of ending in-person services, joining a handful of other churches across Kentucky that have rebuffed Beshear’s wishes.
Roberts arrived at the church Sunday morning to find several piles of nails dumped at the church entrances to the parking lot. He said he wouldn’t tell his congregation to follow or defy the orders that the governor announced Friday in his ongoing effort to hold down the spread of COVID-19.
In Kentucky, the virus has killed nearly 100 and infected more than 1,800.
“Everybody has to do what they feel comfortable with,” Roberts said. He did cover his own license plate, as did several other parishioners.
It didn’t matter. Troopers took down the VIN numbers instead.
At some services, people remained in cars
Across Kentucky, reports came in of other churches in potential violation of the mass-gathering rules and CDC guidelines on drive-thru services.
Sgt. Josh Lawson of Kentucky State Police said most of the department’s 16 posts responded to between two and five complaints about church services.
But they hadn’t found any violations of CDC guidelines or other in-person services – except for Maryville.
Most calls were for outdoor services, where people remained in their cars. Those services “were specifically mentioned by the governor as being allowed,” Lawson said.
At Maryville, the people who stayed in their cars and listened to the service through the outdoor speaker did not receive quarantine notices.
“We’re responding to those calls as we would any other calls for service,” Lawson said.
Elsewhere around Kentucky, troopers used community connections to speak with pastors to advise that “they can worship while doing so safely and within proper guidelines.” Lawson said, adding that it has been “very non-confrontational.”
In fact, several pastors in Eastern Kentucky who were planning to hold in-person services changed their minds and opted for drive-in services, said Harlan County Judge-Executive Dan Mosley.
Mosley had said in a Facebook post Saturday that he knew of 10 churches in his county that were planning in-person Easter services.
Church vs. state in a viral pandemic
The Rev. Roberts couldn’t be swayed.
He had been determined to move forward with the 11 a.m. Easter service at Maryville despite repeated pleas from Beshear to shift to virtual services and the governor’s March 19 executive order prohibiting mass gatherings.
Earlier this week, the Baptist congregation also received a state-backed order from the Bullitt County Health Department to cease in-person gatherings “immediately.”
The church rebuffed both, holding a Wednesday evening service that drew roughly 40 attendees.
Beshear’s order for police to record license plates has drawn criticism from numerous Republicans at the state and federal level, including U.S. Sens. Mitch McConnell and Rand Paul.
Roberts has said he is “not interested in trying to defy the government” but believes his church has a constitutional right to continue to hold worship services inside his church.
“If you read the Constitution of the United States, if you read the constitution of the state of Kentucky, they both say that (Beshear) is infringing on the church’s rights,” Roberts said earlier this week.
Most clergy support staying home for Easter
Beshear has often mentioned in recent weeks that the vast majority of churches have chosen to hold virtual services to protect their members and the community from the spread of COVID-19.
“To our knowledge, 99.89% of all churches and all synagogues and all mosques in Kentucky have chosen to do the right thing,” Beshear said Saturday. “I’m just doing my best to save lives. And there aren’t easy answers.”
The governor promised that the state is not going to “padlock doors or arrest pastors.”
Recording license plate numbers, he said, is an effort to “say that if you’re going to make the decision to go to a mass gathering during this pandemic, it shouldn’t affect other people.”
Others turn to drive-in service
On Sunday morning, On Fire Christian Church pastor Chuck Salvo stood on a podium above 100 or so cars in the parking lot, starting the Easter morning service by singing “God Bless the U.S.A.” and waving the American flag to a chorus of honks from churchgoers.
Before getting into his Easter sermon, Salvo said he recognized that government officials “are up against a tremendous challenge” and led the congregation in a prayer.
He then recited the CDC guidelines for drive-in services.
Contributing: Savannah Eadens, Billy Kobin and Chris Kenning
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This article originally appeared on Louisville Courier Journal: Kentucky church holds Easter service, police issue quarantine notices