And the People Shouted Hallelujah

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In a bold move last week, President Donald Trump announced that his administration would seek to immediately reopen houses of worship across the country.

Next came an order to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to classify churches, synagogues, and mosques as “essential places that provide essential services.”

“Some governors have deemed liquor stores and abortion clinics as essential, but have left out churches and other houses of worship,” President Trump said in the White House press room, punctuating his statement with the words, “It’s not right.”

“The people are demanding to go to their church and synagogue, to go to their mosque,” the president said, adding that in America “we need more prayer, not less.”

Spirituality, by virtue of its existence, is essential. In America, its manifestation has historically been safeguarded by the words contained in our inspired foundational document.

Hard to believe that we could ever have been denied the necessity of the soul.

President Trump had another message for officials who have little sense of urgency and seem content to delay indefinitely when it comes to allowing houses of worship to reopen.

“If they don’t do it, I will override the governors,” the president said.

His remarks have been mischaracterized by the Democrats and the antagonistic media from the moment they were uttered. Many of the same partisan organizations and individuals show little or no regard for a paramount constitutional right—the free exercise of religion.

Some of the so-called experts have weighed in, indicating that President Trump does not have the authority to override governors who are dragging their feet on the reopening of religious institutions.

As head of the executive branch, the president maintains the authority to utilize the Department of Justice (DOJ) to accomplish the objective of securing the cooperation of the governors.

Among the many options, lawsuits can be filed and judges can impose limitations on the actions of governors who are in violation of federal and/or state constitutions. Attorney General William Barr has already demonstrated that he is willing to enter the fray of legal challenges to governors’ orders.

The free exercise of religion is included in our First Amendment precisely because the founders understood the essential nature of religious liberty. To ever have given houses of worship a “non-essential” label not only runs counter to the First Amendment, but it has the potential to hinder a primary life process in which an individual and/or groups engage, particularly in times of distress or anxiety.

Our country’s first president would have been on board with our current president in understanding the necessity for spirituality and religious expression.

As shown in Arnold Friberg’s famous painting “The Prayer at Valley Forge,” the image of then-General George Washington on his knees has inspired Americans since the work of art was first unveiled in 1976, the year of our nation’s bicentennial.

As the story goes, a young Pennsylvania senator named Isaac Potts was against the war that gave birth to America. His opposition would not last long, though.

One day he happened upon a man who was immersed in deep prayer. At his side a sword lay placid on the ground. The solitary figure turned out to be General Washington himself, asking the Almighty to assist him in his cause of emancipating a nascent country.

Reflecting on the prayer, Potts became convinced that the American Revolution “was the cause of God, and America could prevail.”

President George Washington would later say, “Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports.”

Perhaps much like something President Washington would have said if faced with the same circumstances, President Trump let governors and officials across the land know that religious institutions, and the worship services they provide, play an essential role.

He has spoken for the searchers whose life-sustaining spirituality is, and always will be, essential.

And the people shouted hallelujah.

‘Essential’ Faith

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At a time when folks are struggling to come to grips with grave illnesses, economic hardships, logistic challenges, and imposed isolation, faith has become an “essential” in the battle against the “invisible enemy.”

But worship communities that have been trying to follow government regulations and guidelines have suddenly found themselves under attack in several parts of the country.

It appears as though various state and local officials, who may or may not hold a different view of religious worship than their fervent faith counterparts, are using current coronavirus-related circumstances to target people who are participating in worship in safe and responsible ways.

The free exercise of religion is an absolute fundamental right endowed by the same Creator to whom the aforementioned worship is directed. This free exercise of religion is enshrined in the First Amendment of the Constitution.

In simple yet eloquent words, the text of the First Amendment states, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

Recently, however, just prior to the pinnacle Christian celebration of Easter, several state and local officials took some aggressive steps in which they attempted to limit, and in some cases, even ban people from engaging in worship.

Thankfully, Attorney General William Barr has been paying close attention to the issue and is poised to intervene.

The Department of Justice (DOJ) notified state and local officials who had been involved in the banning of religious services and informed them that the DOJ was not going to sit back and allow the coronavirus pandemic to be used as an opportunity to target worshipers.

DOJ Director of Communications Kerri Kupec tweeted, “During this sacred week for many Americans, AG Barr is monitoring govt regulation of religious services. While social distancing policies are appropriate during this emergency, they must be applied evenhandedly & not single out religious orgs. Expect action from DOJ next week!”

The most blatant examples of overzealous government action have come against churches that were utilizing drive-in services, i.e., those in which congregants remained inside their own vehicles during church services.

Over this past Easter weekend in a supposed effort to slow the spread of the coronavirus, Greg Fischer, the mayor of Louisville, Kentucky, tried to ban such drive-in church services. For those who still value common sense, the overly broad action taken by the mayor was outrageous.

Folks who remain on the inside of their respective vehicles during worship services are actually safer than many of those who engage in so-called official “essential” activity.

The Fischer order singled out church-goers in cars who were merely sitting in the parking lot. Meanwhile people in vehicles all over the place lined up at drive-throughs of fast food restaurants, banks, pharmacies, and the like. Double standard like no other.

“It’s not really practical or safe to accommodate drive-up [church] services taking place in our community,” the mayor said in defense of his ban.

Claiming that if he allowed drive-in religious services, there would be “hundreds of thousands of people” driving around the community.

On Fire Christian Church, which is located in Louisville, Kentucky, sued Fischer and the city, alleging that the mayor’s action against the drive-in religious services was unconstitutional.

U.S. District Judge Justin Walker agreed, issuing a temporary restraining order against the mayor’s order.

“On Holy Thursday, an American mayor criminalized the communal celebration of Easter,” Judge Walker wrote.

Kentucky is a hotspot when it comes to interfering with the free exercise of religion. Kentucky Governor Andy Beshear went so far as to announce that the government would be tracking the license plates of any individuals attending Easter services and would subsequently mandate the owners of the vehicles to be quarantined for fourteen days.

Kentucky Senator Rand Paul denounced Beshear’s dictate. In a post on Twitter, Sen. Paul stated, “Taking license plates at church? Quarantining someone for being Christian on Easter Sunday? Someone needs to take a step back here.”

Similar to Louisville, two churches in Greenville, Mississippi had to contend with police officers who arrived at their drive-in services and threatened to levy fines on worshipers of $500.

“We were abiding by the CDC guidelines,” Rev. James Hamilton of the King James Baptist Church said, during an appearance on Fox News’s “Tucker Carlson Tonight.”

“Members of the church were inside their cars, had their windows up, and I was preaching the Word of God. So no one was outside, and also we had cars at a distance,” the reverend added.

Apparently, Greenville Mayor Errick Simmons had issued an executive order that targeted churches in a selective manner.

As Judge Walker wrote in the Louisville case, “…if sitting in cars did pose a significant danger of spreading the virus, Louisville would close all drive-throughs and parking lots that are not related to maintaining public health, which they haven’t done.”

At this critical time in America, the free exercise of religion is in greater need of protection than just about any other moment in modern history.

Thankfully, this Easter season has demonstrated it’s not faith that’s in short supply. It’s politicians who are willing to honor the Constitution.

Take Me to Church…Online

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At a time when society is experiencing a heightened degree of anxiety, many folks appear to be turning inward in search of the faith that they knew as a little child.

Our country has a treasure chest of faith traditions that are proving to be invaluable during these trying times in which we now find ourselves.

As human beings we need one another. This is a self-evident statement. Nevertheless it is a soothing one when freely acknowledged to self and others.

We have been forced to remain separate, but through the isolating experience we seem to have gained a greater appreciation for loved ones, colleagues, and even would-be friends.

While getting in touch with our most basic needs, many of us have discovered that the need to be together in worship is greater than we had ever imagined.

Saving grace to the rescue. Although our houses of worship have had to close their physical doors, digital windows the internet-over have been flung wide open.

Those, who for whatever reasons, had stopped attending holy wooden, steel, and brick and mortar structures are now filling digital pews in greater and greater numbers, thanks to online streaming and on demand viewing.

Ministry Brands is a leading provider of software for online religious streaming for churches, ministries, and faith-based organizations in the United States and Canada.

As indicated in a recent release by the company, its online service, ChurchStreaming.TV, reported an unprecedented surge in internet worship, due to the lack of availability of physical worship facilities during this period of home “sheltering.”

Amazingly, the streaming service has quadrupled its internet usage over the same period in 2019.

Life.Church is an evangelical multi-site worship center that serves congregants at 34 locations in 10 Midwest states. The church created technology back in 2006, Church Online Platform, which facilitates online services and makes it available to other churches free of charge.

Online church attendance through Life.Church’s platform has continued to increase significantly, breaking records with each consecutive weekend that passes. The church indicated in a news release that more than 7 million people attended services during the March 21-22 weekend, which was almost double the participation of the previous weekend. Thousands of new churches have been signing up to use the Life.Church technology.

Easter is rapidly approaching, which for many people is the highest of holy days. It remains the largest worship attendance day for Christians of all denominations.

Churches, ministries, and faith-based communities of all sizes are preparing for the challenge of holding Easter Sunday services while still practicing distancing. Online worship is the answer to many a prayer.

One of the most influential Christian congregations in Hollywood, Churchhome, is perhaps best known for its services held at a theater in Beverly Hills, where the front rows are reserved for celebrities.

In conventional times, the church draws thousands of people to its five locations spread throughout California and Washington.

“I think we have an opportunity, actually, to engage at a deeper level,” Churchome lead pastor Judah Smith told Fox News. “We’re finding that actually being home, engaging face-to-face is going to lead us actually to an interesting place in faith and I think will change how we worship going forward.”

Chruchhome, Zoe Church, Mosaic, Radius, VOUS, and Hillsong, are among the new breed of trendy worship centers that are attracting the famous. These churches have somewhat of an advantage over the more traditional denominations, because they have always incorporated the internet in their ministries, via online platforms and apps.

In addition to churches providing digital alternatives, an increasing number of pastors have turned to a much older concept to gather together their congregants; that being the drive-in venue. Churchgoers are driving into church parking lots, maintaining the appropriate distance from adjacent cars, and turning their radios on to listen to sermons. Some drive-in theaters that are now barred from showing movies are instead opening up their premises for local churches to utilize.

Although the future remains uncertain, new blessings will undoubtedly continue to emerge in this period of worship innovation.

In an article in Christianity Today, David Taylor, an assistant professor of theology at Fuller Seminary, writes, “I’ve discovered recently that my prejudices against media technology reflect an embarrassing ignorance about how such technologies might serve the deaf, the elderly, the homebound.”

Taylor adds, “Consider, then, not how this season of experimentation will make people woefully dependent on disembodied technologies, but rather how it may bring to your attention the people in your community who will be blessed long-term by adjustments that you make.”

Hope to see you at the online altar.

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