BALTIMORE U.S. Rep. Andy Harris, R-Md.-1st, is upset with government officials for cracking down.on church services over violations of COVID-19 orders.
Harris is a Republican representing the Eastern Shore and areas near Baltimore.
He is criticizing Baltimore officials over trying to shut down and restrict services at Greater Grace World Outreach Church in northwest Baltimore over alleged violations of COVID orders. State and local mask and social distancing orders apply to churches and other houses of worship.
Regardless of what this congregation did, the government has no right to shut them down. Anything along that line is a clear and gross violation of First Amendment freedom, Harris said in a statement.
The church held in-person services on Sunday. Baltimore city allows for churches to meet at 25% capacity with plans to go to 50% on March 26.
We just are thankful we can assemble tonight, said Thomas Schaller, senior pastor for Greater Grace World Outreach Church during services on Sunday.
We want to say to the city of Baltimore that we are on the same team. That we love Baltimore, Schaller said.Baltimore is our home. So we care. We are praying for our government authorities, he said.
The church has been warned and restricted over violations of the citys COVID orders related to masks and social distancing.
Schaller said he feels the church should welcome those without masks along with those who want to wear masks. In my heart, I say you are welcome, he said of the unmasked at a recent service. He said the church has canceled or changed numerous events to abide by COVID orders.
Many of us dont care about it anymore. We are hugging and kissing. We are embracing and living, he said referring to the pandemic.
Gov. Larry Hogan has lifted statewide COVID capacity restrictions on churches including on the Eastern Shore. But six-foot social distancing rules hamper a number of churches ability to fully reopen. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control has eased social distancing rules for K-12 schools to three feet for elementary schools and for middle and high schools with lower rates of the virus. Restaurants owners and churches would like to see six-foot social distancing rules revisited for them also.
Baltimore city has also kept more restrictive COVID rules than the state orders though some of those local restrictions are being eased some by Mayor Brandon Scott.
Stefanie Mavronis, deputy director of communications for Mayor Scott, said the city has been meeting with the church about its reopening plans and would continue to enforce city COVID orders including related to masks.
The mayors office and health department met with Greater Grace Church last week. Since then, the health department has received the churchs safety plan for Easter and anticipates a general reopening plan in the near future. The city will continue to enforce the mayors executive order, which is rooted in the public health data and in line with the statewide mask requirement. We remain encouraged by the vast majority of faith institutions that continue to find ways to worship safely during this pandemic, she said.
Still, Harris said government officials especially in Baltimore should not be restricting church and religious services because of COVID orders.
Its truly disturbing to hear government officials chose to completely shutdown a church in response to alleged COVID capacity or mask regulations. Irrespective of what may have been done, this is a gross and egregious violation of the First Amendment. When it says government shall make no law prohibiting the free exercise of religion, the Constitutional authors didnt say a public health emergency was an exception which the Supreme Court has made quite clear in recent rulings. said Harris. The right to practice our faith is essential, and shuttering a congregation for alleged violations of this caliber shows what those in charge really think about individuals practicing their faith. With drugs and violent crime rampant, the problem in Baltimore City is not having too many church goers.
There have been 7,999 deaths attributed to COVID in Maryland since the pandemic began. That includes 14 new deaths reported Monday, March 22 by the Maryland Department of Health.
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