MOSCOW — President Donald Trump quote-tweeted a video Wednesday of a Moscow church gathering, falsely claiming Democrats want to permanently shut down churches.
Trump quote-tweeted a post by Cliff Maloney, president of the libertarian group Young Adults for Liberty.
Maloney’s tweet said: “If you would have told me in 2019 that we were just 1 year away from Americans being ARRESTED for holding outdoor church services, I would have thought you to be insane. This is one of the most heartbreaking things I’ve ever seen. Pray for America.”
While Maloney’s tweet said the attendees were arrested for simply holding outdoor church services, police records reflect a different scenario. Two people were arrested on suspicion of resisting or obstructing an officer and another person was arrested but not charged with allegedly refusing to identify themselves to police, the Moscow-Pullman Daily News reported.
The video in his tweet is from a September “psalm sing” held by Christ Church in Moscow to oppose local mask and social-distancing mandates. Five attendees, including the three arrested, were cited for refusing to wear masks and follow social-distancing guidelines, the Moscow-Pullman Daily News reported.
Trump’s retweet of the video reads, “DEMS WANT TO SHUT YOUR CHURCHES DOWN, PERMANENTLY. HOPE YOU SEE WHAT IS HAPPENING. VOTE NOW!”
Churches across the U.S. have received backlash, fines and citations for holding services that violate state and local mask mandates and social-distancing guidelines. Churches are not being fined for simply holding service but rather for violating COVID-19 guidelines
Some church leaders have argued these guidelines are unfairly enforced. Megachurch pastors, such as John MacArthur in California, have gone to court over restrictions, which he called “criminalizing activity directly required by our faith,” he said in court documents obtained by the San Diego Reader.
Maria Howard, assistant professor of philosophy at Gonzaga University and a member of the Spokane Regional Health District’s ethics committee, said she has seen two distinct approaches from Christian churches on the issue.
Howard used a church she recently visited as an example. Its marquee read “Moses Masked,” a reference to the book of Exodus when Moses had been in God’s presence when he received the Ten Commandments. The experience left Moses’ face radiant. His shining face frightened his followers, so he wore a mask.
“I think what the folks I know of religious persuasion, and I am myself, a Christian, believe that part of the calling of being a church, part of the calling of the gospel is to do unto others what you would have done to you,” Howard said. “So, for those that are masking, they see it as part and parcel of what it is to be Christians in this really weird time.”
Some churches, however, are concerned about infringements on their liberty, Howard said.
“There is a very good and long history in our country of fighting for liberties, especially religious liberties when it comes to freedom to practice our religion as we see fit,” Howard said. “But what’s at stake here isn’t the practice of religion.”
Howard said most of the time groups are being cited for ignoring mask mandates and physical distancing guidelines.
Executive Pastor of Christ Church Ben Zornes said his issue with mandates and social-distancing restrictions fall into the liberty category, citing concerns about government overreach.
Christ Church has consistently held psalm sings over the past couple of years, usually monthly. But as of late, Zornes said they have been holding them weekly .
“One: It’s something we regularly do,” Zornes said. “And two: It’s making a statement to the city council in particular, sort of, expressing our views on the mask mandate.”
Zornes said with the low case load in Latah County, the church is frustrated with the continued mask mandate and lack of communication from the council on what criteria will decide when the mandate should be lifted.
Since the start of the pandemic, Latah County has had 643 confirmed cases of COVID-19 with zero deaths. Currently, there are 379 open cases, according to Idaho Public Health.
“Largely, I view it as somewhat of an overreaction to the virus,” Zornes said. “We’re not virus deniers, but there has been the mask mandate which has simply been, it seems like, the one tool that city council has to feel like they’re doing something.”
Christ Church has been holding in-person church services for months. In June, it held a joint service with about 1,000 people, most of whom did not wear masks or comply with social-distancing guidelines, the Moscow-Pullman Daily news reported.
Zornes said the science on masks is still up for debate, though the medical community disagrees.
“I think the jury is out on that,” he said. “I don’t think we know enough to know one way or another.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends wearing a mask, staying 6 feet from people outside of your household, and handwashing as ways to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
Medical ethics expert Howard said the uproar over liberties being taken away is rooted in fear.
“This might feel like a giant infraction on your liberty, and I understand the concern that if a government gets a toehold, and they take away some of your liberties that might continue to happen,” she said.
This “slippery slope” argument can be valid, but Howard encouraged people to ask whether it is rational. Ethically, public health measures need to involve as little restriction of liberty as possible while demonstrating a clear benefit, Howard said.
“And in this instance, mask-wearing and mask mandates meet that principle of proportionality without question.”
While Zornes said Maloney’s tweet is a “fair shorthand of what took place” at the psalm sing last month, he does acknowledge there is more nuance to the situation.
“We were exercising First Amendment rights to petition the government for grievances and we did so by also exercising our religious liberty, and they chose to take issue with that,” Zornes said of the arrests.
Zornes said it is concerning that arrests were not made at protests over the summer that he said violated the guidelines, such as Black Lives Matter events.
“The double standard there is concerning,” he said.
Howard agreed it would be concerning if citations were being handed out to churches more frequently.
“If there is any credence at all that citations are happening more frequently than other gatherings that have been happening that aren’t religious in nature, that is something we need to talk about,” Howard said.
Christ Church held a psalm sing Wednesday, in part because the City Council has not addressed the church’s concern, Zornes said. Posts on social media showed more than a hundred unmasked people singing outside City Hall while a neighbor played a song by Cardi B from their window.
“We want to continue to make the statement that … we’re not virus deniers, but we also recognize that you can’t live in fear,” Zornes said. “The gospel gives us courage to face plagues, famine, storm, trials, and we want to declare that hope and show that hope in the midst of our city.”
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