Lee administration issues guidance for church activities

A sign outside the Pink Cadillac drive-in movie theater in Centerville advertises church services on May 3, 2020. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

Gov. Bill Lee’s Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives has issued a set of guidelines for church services amind the COVID-19 pandemic.

Here’s what the Lee administration is recommending:

Guidance for Gathering Together in Houses of Worship

Tennessee is stronger because of our citizens and communities of faith. Governor Lee is thankful to the houses of worship and faith communities that have played a large part in Tennessee’s success to slow the spread of COVID-19 through social distancing and other means of worshiping together without physically gathering.

The First Amendment to the United States Constitution and Article I of the Tennessee Constitution protect the right of Tennesseans to worship and freely exercise their religion in every aspect of their lives according to the dictates of their own consciences. Additionally, the Tennessee Religious Freedom Restoration Act (T.C.A. § 4-1-407) provides additional protections for religious liberty. Thus, state and local governments must ensure these core constitutional and statutory rights are protected.

This resource is an aggregation of suggested protocols from various faith communities across Tennessee. Not all suggestions will be appropriate for each faith community. These suggestions are included as a courtesy for your convenience. These suggestions are not, and should not be construed as, mandates or requirements by the State of Tennessee, the Governor’s Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, or any other entity of federal, state, or local government.

Moving forward, people should continue to exercise caution while COVID-19 remains present in Tennessee. To minister to vulnerable populations while also protecting those populations and continuing our state’s progress to contain COVID-19, faith communities are strongly encouraged to continue offering online services and other creative methods of worship and ministry. Faith communities should conduct
as many activities as possible remotely and should follow the recommendations in this guidance when deciding to begin gathering in person once again.

Decisions about when to resume in-person gatherings are serious and should be made by each house of worship and its leadership based on the unique needs of its faith community, and in consideration of preserving and protecting health and safety to the greatest extent practicable. Governor Lee’s executive orders have been clear that religious services are essential, rather than social gatherings. Caring for the
elderly, disabled, and immunocompromised is incredibly important to faith communities, and gatherings that include these vulnerable populations uniquely put them at risk. As such, faith leaders should evaluate the specifics of their congregation, community, and facility when determining when and how to gather in person. Due to the potential high risks of potential widespread transmission of COVID-19 in houses of worship, faith communities are encouraged to continue alternative worship options.

When faith leaders determine it is time to begin gathering in person again, faith communities should recognize that meeting in person should be different from meeting in person before the COVID-19 pandemic. It is likely that certain changes to in-person gatherings should remain in place until a vaccine for COVID-19 is available. Governor Lee hopes that all Tennesseans will continue to make responsible choices to protect themselves and their neighbors from COVID-19. 

Here are some guidelines for your faith community as you determine when and how to offer in-person gatherings:

1. Evaluate how you can provide for your congregation spiritually and emotionally, while continuing to protect vulnerable populations and reduce the spread of COVID-19.  

2. Wear face coverings. Social distance by staying 6 feet away from others. Consult the CDC guidelines and guidance from your local health officials to determine the risks of gathering in person. This should include thinking about the percentage of your community classified as vulnerable, how conducive your facility is to allowing social distancing, the size of your community, and more.

3. A phased approach to resuming in-person gatherings is recommended. Vulnerable populations (everyone 65 years and older, people with disabilities, people with serious respiratory or cardiovascular conditions, people who are immunocompromised, and others) and children’s activities/nursery programs should not gather in person until a later time. Consider solutions to minimize close personal contact that may be part of your services, such as handshakes or sharing food and drink.

4. As the phased approach begins, limit the size of attendance in your sanctuary and other confined spaces to create seating arrangements that provide at least 6-foot distancing between household units. It is recommended not to exceed 50% of maximum capacity of the room and should enable full compliance with CDC recommendations for social distancing and hygiene. Over time, as Tennessee continues to see the successful containment of COVID-19, it will be appropriate to gradually increase capacity.

5. Encourage members of your community to stay at home if they are symptomatic, have a fever, have been in close contact with someone who has tested positive, or have traveled internationally or to a domestic hot spot in the past two weeks.

6. If you learn that a member of your congregation has tested positive for COVID-19, consult CDC guidelines and local health department recommendations to determine whether you should immediately cease in-person gatherings, close for additional cleaning, or otherwise change your protocols.

7. Stay informed of updated safety protocols and recommendations as the COVID-19 situation in your community develops.

15 Responses to Lee administration issues guidance for church activities

  • Avatar
    Beatrice Shaw says:

    Government should stay out of people’s religions

    • Avatar
      Perry Aubric says:

      What the hell is your problem, Bea? Did you even read this before you started blowing off your mouth:

      “These suggestions are included as a courtesy for your convenience. These suggestions are not, and should not be construed as, mandates or requirements by the State of Tennessee, the Governor’s Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, or any other entity of federal, state, or local government.”

      It appears that they are indeed staying out of their business, but they are offering some common sense suggestions…

      Oh, wait. Common sense. Doesn’t apply to you. My bad. Continue on with your denial.

  • Avatar
    LeeAnn C. says:

    Government overreach at its finest. Time for Governor Lee to disband the “Unified Command”, rescind executive orders and IF concerned that new laws need to be put in place to ‘protect’ the public, turn that over to the TN legislature. They’ve been elected to legislate. The executive office needs to retreat back into that appropriate role!

    • Avatar
      James White says:

      It would require a Tennessee Constitutional amendment and I would pray that the people would not allow it, and would not approve an amendment to do this. Never Again!

  • Avatar
    Michael Lottman says:

    The insistence on holding in-person services of large religious congregations is in some part just a question of “we can do this and you can’t stop us.” There can be no question that these public displays of piety will result in more new COVID-19 cases and more deaths among these congregations and that those in attendance will go out and infect hundreds and hundreds of other people with their newfound cases of the killer virus. The community and the state deserve to be protected from this inevitable intensification and prolongation of the current crisis. Unfortunately, imposing such protection requires telling people they will just have to worship their gods at home, instead of putting their religiosity on public view for whatever reason they feel it is necessary to do so. That in turn will require leader(s) with the fortitude to establish a definitive requirement that large religious gatherings be put on hold just like sports contests, country music concerts, and other such events, rather than issuing a equivocating proclamation that says nothing and cannot be enforced. Some day our governor and other so-called leaders will have to answer for their cowardice and hypocrisy–but not, apparently, before thousands more have died.

    • Avatar
      Perry Aubric says:

      Well, I agree that they are in a fierce contest to see who is the most self-righteous.

      But, Michael, the First Amendment is pretty much absolute. NO LAW prohibiting the free exercise of religion is allowed. I don’t see an exception there for this pandemic.

      Now, the Governor has offered suggestions — not requirements, just suggestions — for safe practice. They appear to me to be common sense suggestions. And, yes, I know that common sense is uncommon, especially among those who don’t have a thought in their heads that wasn’t put there by Rush, Sean or the collective nitwittery of Fox & Friends. But the Constitution is pretty clear, and I don’t think there is any legal way to prohibit churches, synagogues, mosques or covens from holding services.

      • Avatar
        James White says:

        Perry, the First Amendment applies to Congress as it clearly states, read it for yourself. Lee defied the the Ternnessee Constitution.

        • Avatar
          Perry Aubric says:

          The Supreme Court long ago ruled that the First Amendment applied to states as well. No state can violate the First Amendment, nor can Congress. Your screwball interpretations of the Constitution notwithstanding.

    • Avatar
      MARLE says:

      Isn’t this pretty much harken back to the philosophy of snake handling; do something dangerous and if it’s God’s will that you survive then you shall.

  • Avatar
    James White says:

    #LeeTheTyrant irresponsibly Shut down everything like he was a Dictator. He had No Constitutional Authority and the legislature had no authority to ‘give’ it to him

  • Avatar
    steve cates says:

    Lee is weak as water. Nothing he has done/ordered/executed/etc. has meaning in any way. He has bragged about “Tennessee Pledge” and “volunteerism”; he must live in a vacuum. Many Tennesseans have ignored concern for others by acting like third graders being denied recess. As to churches, often church folks have less common sense than school folks. .. and I have been involved intimately all of my years with both groups. There are many churches who refused to stop meeting, spreading the virus I am sure with no regard to anything except, “Nobody’s going to tell me I can’t go to church!”. ( The humorous thing to me is that some of those howling loudest around me are those who have not darkened the door of a church in decades. In fact, in the midst of all this, the stats tell us that only 29 percent of our population practices any faith regularly at all. That ties in with the fastest growing faith group in the U.S. : “None!”. ) I am so proud of my church for closing the doors immediately as suggested. Our online services have been extremely well-attended and have been extended through May. As to all of you who keep whining about that “old government”, try driving with no license or insurance; try selling food with no permit; try refusing to let government have anything to do with your social security or bank deposits, etc. A short time of minimal courteous actions may well save the lives of many people and, in the least, keep our overwhelmed medical personnel from having much more to do!!!

  • Avatar
    Eddie White says:

    Steve, where exactly are these many churches who are still having services in their sanctuary ? I have not heard of no church in my area or denomination that are having in person services. I am sure there must be some somewhere, but you have made quite an indictment against church folks. Do you have the stats to back it up?

  • Avatar
    Eddie White says:

    I have not heard of “any” church…don’t want to use a double negative…

  • Avatar
    Eddie White says:

    Just what I thought…hot air….

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