A number of Minnesota religious groups reiterated their support Thursday for Gov. Tim Walz's cautious approach to church reopenings, even as Catholic bishops and some Lutheran leaders plan to break his restrictions.
The Minnesota Council of Churches, the Minnesota Rabbinical Association, and the Minnesota State Baptist Convention stepped forward to support Walz's orders to refrain from opening churches too quickly to limit the spread of the coronavirus.
"We support the cautious, science-driven, and health-focused approach that the governor has followed for the reopening of houses of worship," said the Rev. Curtiss DeYoung, president of the Minnesota Council of Churches.
The expression of support contrasted with that of Archbishop Bernard Hebda of the Catholic Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, who spoke at two news conferences Thursday to insist that churches can be reopened safely. Hebda said he planned to meet with Walz in hopes of reaching common ground.
"These are very challenging times, and I recognize [Walz] has a difficult job," Hebda said, adding that Catholic leaders "have always been ready to work cooperatively" with the governor.
Hebda's remarks came a day after Minnesota's Catholic bishops and the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod announced they would defy Walz's safety guidelines for houses of worship. The guidelines call for capping attendance at 10 people, with a gradual increase expected as COVID-19 cases decline. Both groups said they would open churches to one-third capacity, starting May 26. Hebda said churches that reopen would need to meet the archdiocese's safety standards, which include social distancing and sanitation.
Hebda's media appearances were announced by the Washington, D.C.-based Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which wrote Walz and Attorney General Keith Ellison a letter arguing that the continued closure of churches violates the First Amendment.
The fund describes itself as a public interest law firm defending religious freedom. It represented Hobby Lobby Stores in a 2014 landmark Supreme Court decision that exempted the family-owned retail chain from a federal mandate requiring employers to cover contraceptives for female employees.
Meanwhile, at least one west metro priest has tested positive for the coronavirus and two others have developed symptoms.
The Rev. Andrew Stueve, parochial vicar of St. Ignatius Catholic Church in Annandale, tested positive for the virus, as did several parishioners, according to a letter posted on the church website.
The letter, written by the parish's pastor, the Rev. John Meyer, added that Meyer and the Rev. Aloysius Callaghan, who also serves the parish, "have recently developed some symptoms and are awaiting our own test results."
Asked about the COVID-19 cases, Hebda said he was praying for the priests.
"We are living in dangerous times," he said.
The day's events underscored the tensions in faith communities that are eager to reopen their doors but wary of creating health risks for those who enter.
Health officials have argued that church settings are particularly vulnerable to spreading the coronavirus.
Earlier this week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a report on the repercussions of a rural Arkansas church's decision to open from March 6 to 11.
The report found that among the 92 people who attended services, 35 developed COVID-19 and three died.
Given those numbers, clergy such as the Rev. Billy Russell, president of the Minnesota State Baptist Convention, are strictly following the state's health care recommendations.
He's been livestreaming services from his Greater Friendship Missionary Baptist Church in Minneapolis and has no plans to change for now.
His congregation is largely black, a community hit particularly hard by the coronavirus.
"I'm going to stay with the state's recommendation and listen to the professionals," he said. "They've got the data."
But the Rev. Lucas Woodford, president of the Minnesota South District of the Missouri Synod, argues that churches can open safely.
If Minnesota can permit the Mall of America and casinos to reopen, he asked, why limit church attendance to 10 people?
Even looking ahead at the governor's timetable for state reopenings, houses of worship have no set dates, he said.
"Religious services can't be at the back of the line," Woodford said Thursday in a news conference broadcast from the Becket law firm.
Minnesota's faithful remain as divided as their leaders.
"It is about time the churches stand up to be heard!" said Rick O'Gara of Bloomington. "You can go to a bar or Target but you cannot go to church! Who is the governor listening to?"
Roberta Moeschter of Lino Lakes disagrees.
"Flouting the guidelines for houses of worship at this time is a power play, not a religious need," she said. "People need to think beyond themselves to others who are at risk."
Others feel torn.
"I am a devout Catholic and I am deeply divided," said Dierdrea Workcuff of Minneapolis. "I have missed going to my church … [But] I am concerned about my health issues and the ability of my church to provide a safe environment."