This week one of our colleagues asked our Synod Attorney, Megan Will, to explain for the sake of their Church Council why no one must be in the church building while we are under the shut down order. Megan’s response is below. I am sharing it with you with the permission of Megan and the colleague to whom she was responding. I thought this was a clear description of the reasons we must abide by this order. Megan is trying to help us understand the implications of this order and the liability our congregations are exposed to if we do not comply. May God continue to lead and guide you.
Message from Megan Will:
Good afternoon, Pastor
I received your message regarding clarification of the Governor's Stay-at-Home Order. I appreciate your reaching out as the Order itself is unclear. I have been in contact daily with the Pennsylvania Bar Association receiving guidance on the Order and what is and is not allowed. The Bar Association has been in daily contact with our government officials in Harrisburg to answer these questions, and so, I feel confident in replying to your inquiries at this time.
Please understand that the Order shutting down "essential businesses" lists religious organizations as "essential." However, this is only for emergent pastoral care. The church is not open and should not be open to anyone but you or your pastoral staff. This means that your council cannot gather, your choir cannot gather, and your youth cannot gather - even if you have less than 10 people who are practicing social distancing. The building is not to be open for any purpose, including Holy Week services.
Activities that are allowed: getting mail, paying bills, returning phone calls, grabbing necessary items for your work from home. These activities are things that you or your staff only are permitted to do, and never while others are in the building. Example: if your secretary normally comes in at 10am every other day to go through the mail, please ensure she has left before you go in to do the same.
Many counties are enforcing the Governor's order through the Pennsylvania State Police or other local police bureaus. The church could be fined and cited, as well as any individuals who are on the property, for failure to follow these orders. I don't want you or your congregation to land in criminal court, but that is the very real consequence of failure to follow the Order. Even worse, the church could lose public funding if they are failing to follow the Order. The District Attorney's Association has been tasked with keeping a list of businesses who have failed to follow the Order and turn that information over to the government so they may essentially blacklist organizations from receiving grants and public funding.
I know you're frustrated. I know your parishioners are also frustrated. I cannot emphasize enough the danger that your parish is in for failure to follow this Order. I trust that you will advise your congregation appropriately. I appreciate your reaching out before these actions were taken; truly, I am praying for you and this Synod daily.