New law designates churches “essential services”

  • The shrine behind St. Patrick Church in Jaffrey. Staff photo by Ben Conant

Monadnock Ledger-Transcript
Published: 8/16/2021 3:15:24 PM

A bill signed into law last week by Gov. Chris Sununu puts churches and other places of worship into the category of “essential businesses” during a state of emergency.

The law, House Bill 542, was sponsored by three Republican House members, including Travis O’Hara, who represents Belknap 9, Keith Ammon, who represents Hillsborough 40, and Jim Kofalt, who represents Hillsborough 4, which includes Francestown, Lyndeborough, Wilton and Greenville.

The bill states that during a state of emergency, such as was declared during the COVID-19 pandemic, religious organizations can continue operating “to the same or greater extent” that other essential services are allowed.

The bill clarifies that the government is allowed to require religious organizations to comply with “neutral health, safety, or occupancy requirements,” that are applicable to all organizations, businesses and essential services unless it imposes a “substantial burden.”

So, churches would be required to comply with mask mandates or occupancy limits, as long as it was the least restrictive avenue available to preserve public safety.

Ammon said he heard from many pastors as well as church members who wanted to see churches designated as “essential.”

“Religious freedom is as important a right as freedom of speech,” Ammon said. But, he said, that designation seemed to be “brushed aside” during the pandemic.

“On a societal level, we need to remember the freedom of religion gives us a freedom of consciousness and ability to believe in a higher authority than the state. We need to protect religious liberty,” Ammon said. “The pastors that testified in favor of this bill said they are essential services – it’s their job to look after the flock and benefit the community and offer resources and comfort in times of stress.”

Ammon noted nothing in the law forbids religious organizations from making the decision to close in a state of emergency – it merely put the decision directly in their hands.

Like many organizations and businesses in March of 2020, most houses of worship shut down during the start of the pandemic, as the state of New Hampshire issued orders to limit public gatherings and shut down non-essential services. Some businesses were designated “essential,” including retail stores, manufacturers, grocery and hardware stores.

The Rev. Daniel Osgood, of Greenfield Covenant Church, said it became an oft-told joke among congregations: “Liquor stores are essential, but churches aren’t.”

Greenfield Covenant Church shut down in-person services for two and a half months in 2020, and began to open back up for in-person services, with restrictions on June 1, 2020.

Osgood said if the law had been in place prior to that March, it’s likely the church wouldn’t have fully closed for those two months but said it wouldn’t have been business as usual, either. He said some of the steps the church took when first opening up, such as having additional services to break up the congregation into smaller crowds and offering an online option for those who wanted to stay home, could have allowed them to continue those in-person services throughout those early months.

“As far as the bill is concerned, I think it’s basically a good idea and a good thing,” Osgood said.

But, he said, he does have concerns.

During the first phase of the pandemic shutdown, Osgood said there were churches that continued operating without significant precautions, and he did not agree with that approach.

The Greenfield Covenant Church is back to in-person services, and congregants are not required to wear a mask, but the church does reserve a section of the building reserved for those who do wish to wear a mask, and coffee hour and children’s programming are still suspended, with plans to re-start in the fall, Osgood said.

Rev. Traceymay Kalvaitis, pastor of Dublin Community Church and the Community Church of Harrisville, said she doesn’t think her church communities would have approached their reaction to the pandemic differently if they’d had the choice.

Both churches received guidance from the United Church of Christ, most of which they followed, but the actual decision-makers at the church are an elected board of Deacons, who are members of the church congregation and represent their will.

Both churches, Kalvaitis said, were cautious with their reopening, holding outdoor services in the fall of 2020, and going fully remote for the winter, until the weather allowed outdoor services again. The congregations only started to hold services in the church again this summer, Kalvaitis said, a decision unaffected by government restrictions, which would have allowed indoor services much earlier.

“The work of the church is essential. The bill recognizes that fact. In a state of emergency, the work of the church becomes even more relevant. Food distribution, coordination of volunteer efforts and pastoral support for individuals and families are just a few examples of essential services churches provide. In some traditions, physically gathering and sharing in the rite of Communion, especially, are considered essential,” Kalvaitis said.

But, Kalvaitis said, she has concerns about possible repercussions.

“What concerns me is the potential for what looks like a protection of religious freedom to allow for licentious decision-making that could, in turn, have profound negative impacts on the health of our communities,” Kalvaitis said.

Pastor Kerry W. Richardson, the interim pastor at the Second Congregational Church in Wilton, said his church, too, only began in-person services again this June, and he said they have not ruled out going fully remote again if cases of COVID-19 continue to be detected in Wilton.

“It would have made no difference for me,” Richardson said, of the new law. “I have a congregation – as most mainline denominations have right now – of a certain age, and many are medically compromised.”

Richardson said even though it wasn’t always an easy transition with his older members, the switch to Zoom services had the full congregation participating. He said that technology has created a way to continue to worship remotely.


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