The Rev. David Bushway was deep into his sermon during the first onset of the COVID-19 crisis in Rhode Island when a church elder frantically approached the front of the church to warn that the police were present and had ordered that the service end immediately and for the parishioners to be dispersed.
Rev. Bushway, an associate pastor at Zion Gospel Church, was filling in for the senior pastor who could not attend. Due to the coronavirus, the church had a plan in place to add additional services and limited its participation at the first Sunday service to 25 church members.
The leaders assumed that 25 people in a church which could seat 527 people would provide ample social distancing to protect its members.
“I’ve been in ministry for over 30 years,” Rev. Bushway remarked, “and nothing has ever transpired the way things did on Sunday, March 22.” He recalled, “I noticed a female police officer standing in the lobby with her arms crossed looking into the sanctuary and there were another two outside. I heard later that the officer told one of the ushers to “disperse immediately or we will disperse them.” Faced with that choice, Rev. Bushway reluctantly gave a closing prayer, sent the worshipers home, and cancelled the next service.
Rev. Bushway added, “I find it very difficult to grasp that places of worship have limitations on how many can attend and that we are not considered essential when during this worldwide pandemic, people are looking for hope and the church has the answer that is needed for today. The Bible clearly states, God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble.”
Since religious services were abruptly ended, dozens of religious leaders have urged the Governor to relax restrictions against church gatherings. On May 18th, Governor Raimando permitted churches to congregate so long as they did not exceed 25% of their occupancy limits, effective May 30th.
However, even this concession falls short for many pastors who want to exercise their right to worship, free from interference from the state. Recently, retired Rhode Island Supreme Court Justice Robert Flanders has also weighed in with an analysis of the governor’s overreach in her executive power. In it he argues that, “civil liberties, including religious rights, the right to peaceably assemble, the right to earn an honest living, and the right to travel, may have been violated.”