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In Enforcing Pandemic Precautions, Vermont Treads Lightly in Houses of Worship

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Ignite Church - CHELSEA EDGAR
  • Chelsea Edgar
  • Ignite Church

On Sunday, November 15, two days after Gov. Phil Scott banned social gatherings involving people from different households, Todd Callahan, the pastor of Ignite Church in Williston, reassured his congregation that the new order would not preclude them from gathering for worship.

"Someone reached out to see if we were still having church, based on what the governor said," Callahan announced from his lectern on the stage, where the church's music ministry had just finished an hourlong performance. The musicians — a keyboardist, an electric guitarist, a drummer and half a dozen vocalists — were all unmasked; so was Callahan. 

"We're still going to have church," Callahan declared. "Come on." A chorus of woos rippled through the audience. "People say, 'Jesus would have social-distanced,'" Callahan continued. "No. He would have been praying over the sick and healing the lepers, is what he would have been doing."

According to the governor's latest executive order, in-person worship services can proceed, as long as participants observe social-distancing guidelines and wear masks. But the order lacks any formal enforcement mechanisms; to ensure compliance, the state relies on a patchwork system of citizen whistleblowers, local police departments and, in egregious cases, the state Attorney General's Office.

In a pandemic, regulating houses of worship is an especially fraught task, given the protections of the First Amendment. Callahan has openly repudiated the state's jurisdiction over matters of religious observance; recently, an Irasburg pastor refused to cooperate with a Department of Health investigation into a COVID-19 case within his congregation.

The government's authority to impose targeted public health measures on religious communities has lately come under judicial scrutiny. On November 25, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that attendance restrictions in New York State's so-called "red zones" — areas with high COVID-19 infection rates — were unconstitutional, the first case in which newly confirmed Justice Amy Coney Barrett cast the decisive vote. The Supreme Court determined that such restrictions were a violation of the constitutional right to the free exercise of religion. Lawyers for the state had argued that the attendance limits were necessary, given the history of documented outbreaks originating from religious services, including a super-spreader choir practice in Washington State in March that sickened 53 people and killed two.

In Vermont, houses of worship are subject to the same occupancy guidelines as restaurants, retail shops and other businesses, meaning they can operate at 50 percent of their capacity.

"We believe the recent U.S. Supreme Court decision on New York's treatment of places of worship in its executive order does not adversely impact Vermont's executive order," said Charity Clark, chief of staff for Attorney General T.J. Donovan. "Churches aren't treated more stringently than any other institution." When it comes to enforcing the executive order, state officials have chosen not to lead with penalties, Clark said: "Our first step is always to provide outreach and education." 

Since late October, the state's Department of Public Safety has received two complaints about Ignite Church. One, submitted by someone who attended a service with several family members, stated that an unmasked greeter asked them to crowd into a waiting room before he let them into the worship space. The person who filed the complaint asked the greeter why he wouldn't put on a mask; the greeter ignored the question. Another complaint, in November, cited social media posts from several Ignite members proclaiming that their church "doesn't do masks."

The state police forwarded these complaints to Bart Chamberlain, a detective sergeant in the Williston Police Department. On November 17, Chamberlain spoke with Callahan on the phone. Based on their conversation, Chamberlain explained, he felt reasonably confident that there was no need for further intervention. 

"Sounds like what they're doing is pretty comprehensive," he said. "They have some sort of UV light thing that they do before and after every service. They have a special spray that they're using in there, and they have someone wipe all of the public door handles multiple times throughout the service." 

According to Chamberlain, Callahan said that people are required to wear masks while walking to and from their seats; once they're sitting with members of their household, they can take their masks off.

"Todd's belief is that people who are watching the online broadcast see people in the pews without masks on, so they assume that they're just not wearing masks," Chamberlain said. He added that he hadn't attended a service himself, but he thought Ignite was operating under the same general principles as the restaurant industry. If he received additional complaints, he said, he would follow up with Callahan in a similar fashion. "We've been told to do education four or five times," he said. "It's going to take a business or a company that's really blatantly violating the rules before the Attorney General's Office will take action."

In theory, the AG's office could impose a fine of up to $1,000 for persistent noncompliance with public health mandates. The state has only taken legal action once, in May, when it filed a cease-and-desist order against a Rutland gym owner for reopening before Gov. Scott permitted fitness centers to resume operations.

Most of the time, said Clark, a lighter touch suffices. Just before Easter, AG Donovan called the pastor of a church in Bennington County who had been planning to hold in-person services for the holiday, despite the stay-at-home order in effect at the time. According to Clark, the pastor agreed not to hold the service.  

"I think everyone really hears what these guys are saying when they say spiritual nourishment is incredibly important, especially during these times," said Clark. "So trying to strike a healthy balance of keeping everybody safe while honoring that is a real challenge." 

On Sunday, November 22, roughly 120 people attended a service at New Hope Bible Church in Irasburg. A few days later, pastor George Lawson received a call from the health department to advise him that someone who had been present that Sunday had tested positive for COVID-19. Lawson told Seven Days that he contacted the person in question, who denied testing positive. Given the conflicting accounts, Lawson explained, he decided not to inform his congregation. "I wasn't trying to be noncompliant. But I want the truth," he said. "I don't want to put out something for no reason."

Contrary to the state's directives, Lawson said that people are not required to wear masks in his church: "I'm not an enforcement person." When the health department asked Lawson for the names of all the people who had been present that Sunday, he told them he didn't keep a list. Last Friday, the health department issued a press release urging anyone who had attended the New Hope Bible Church service to get tested, an action Lawson deemed "out of bounds of any authority [the department] should have."

Pastor Todd Callahan - YOUTUBE SCREENSHOT
  • Youtube Screenshot
  • Pastor Todd Callahan

The Sunday after Callahan, the Ignite pastor, spoke with Williston police, he told his congregation the only true authority rested with God. "There are people that watch online and just want to stir things up and do everything that they can to prevent us from doing what we're doing this morning," he said during his sermon. He emphasized that he, personally, was not opposed to masks, but he believed people should be able to choose for themselves whether they wore one in church. 

"I've got pastors saying to me how horrible we are for doing what we're doing," he said. "Those are the same pastors who will be shocked when they're standing in hell. They'll say, 'It was culturally expected. We were told we had to do this.' The state's suggesting that we shouldn't sing or play music, because it would require people to talk loudly — it's all about trying to change the sound in the earth," he continued. "But we are God's people. We make a different sound."

Some people, he said, would never understand the need to assemble before God. "But we know the word of God, which says do not forsake the assembling of saints, as is the habit of some. The word of God says that when there are sick, that we need to lay hands on the sick. We have to lay hands on the sick," he repeated. "We are to lay hands on the sick." Ignite posted a video of the sermon on its website; several days later, the video disappeared without explanation. 

Callahan did not respond to multiple interview requests. On Sunday, November 29, I attended a service at Ignite. Two unmasked greeters approached me as soon as I walked in; when I mentioned that it was my first time at Ignite, one of them touched my elbow and instructed me to fill out a visitor card. Inside the dark, high-ceilinged worship space, awash with the sound of live Christian contemporary rock, were two laminated signs — one advertising a COVID-19 liability waiver and another stating that the surfaces in the building had been disinfected with VitalOxide, recognized by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency as a coronavirus-killing agent.

Some 60 people, all unmasked, were standing in front of their chairs, bobbing and singing along to the music. Every other row of seats was occupied; the rows between were empty. As the worshippers trickled in, they occasionally brushed against each other to get to their seats; several elderly people squeezed through the aisles with their walkers. I lingered by the doors and watched at least a dozen people enter and exit without masks. At one point, an unmasked woman walked up to me, leaned in close and asked if I wanted to take a seat. Onstage, the keyboardist shouted into his microphone, "Praise the Lord! Let's get vocal about it!" A man standing a few feet away from me whooped. Shortly after that, I left. 

In his sermon that morning, which was later posted online, Callahan extended a welcome to "members of the local media." He then proceeded to accuse the media of "stirring up all kinds of gossip online" and ignoring Christians "when you're giving backpacks and school supplies away to those in need."

"I rebuke every spirit that seeks to tear down the kingdom of God," he continued. "And we'll repeat, right now, in Jesus' name, you have no power. You have no influence. You have no ground to move here."

"I'm telling you," he urged his congregation, his voice hoarse from shouting, "that no matter what any governor says, the king of kings and lord of lords says that you can sing all you want!"

Colin Flanders contributed reporting.

The original print version of this article was headlined "When State Meets Church"