Heritage Baptist Church leader: COVID-19 ‘has not hit our county’ like it has others; services to continue

photo by: Contributed photo; Journal-World file photo

Pictured at left is the Rev. Scott Hanks. At right, cars are pictured in the parking lot at Heritage Baptist Church, 1781 East 800 Road, on April 12, 2020.

The Rev. Scott Hanks has heard from members of the community and met with law enforcement, but Heritage Baptist Church will continue its in-person services.

“It’s not that people don’t care, and we definitely love our community,” the church’s leader said Tuesday, “but we still believe that the Bible commands for us to attend church, and that’s why we’re doing what we’re doing.”

The church, northwest of Lawrence at 1781 East 800 Road, has drawn criticism after it held services on Easter Sunday in defiance of Gov. Laura Kelly’s executive order barring public gatherings of more than 10 people. On Monday, county leaders said they intended to enforce the order up to and including arresting, prosecuting and/or fining those who refuse to voluntarily comply or commit “flagrant or repeated violations.”

But Hanks pointed to the 40 positive cases in Douglas County’s population of roughly 100,000.

“If it was worse in our area for some reason, I feel like there’d be a justifiable cause that ‘Well, OK, we’re going to need to figure out how to do this differently,'” Hanks said. “So it’s not a matter of caring. It’s a matter of the facts that it has not hit our county like it has hit other counties and other states.”

Asked whether he thinks that’s because so many people have been following the stay-at-home order and not continuing their normal activities, he said he couldn’t disagree, but “we don’t know that for sure, obviously.”

Hanks declined to go into detail about the meeting he initiated with law enforcement Tuesday, but he noted that “we’ve been trying to find some options in order to be able to keep having church,” and “actually, it went very well.”

“… They’re just trying to do their job,” Hanks said of law enforcement. “So again, you know, they’re doing what they need to do, and so we’re just going to keep taking it one step at a time.”

Jenn Hethcoat, public information officer for the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office, confirmed Tuesday that members of the sheriff’s office and the Unified Command had met with Hanks, but she was unable to immediately provide answers to the Journal-World’s other follow-up questions.

Hanks said he has heard from some of his congregants who are afraid to attend services in person.

“That’s very unfortunate,” he said. “And you know what? I encourage the older folks to stay home, and I also encourage — if they don’t feel comfortable, don’t come. I just don’t want to close the church doors. I think if a person wants to come, they can, but there’s no pressure to come to church.”

Many churches across the country have taken advantage of alternative means to engage members in services. Heritage Baptist’s website already has a feature that allows visitors to listen to audio of Hanks’ sermons, live or recorded. He said available internet service thus far has been insufficient to livestream video, but even if he could, he would still have church “because we believe the command is to assemble.”

Asked about parking lot services that some churches across the country have been doing, where congregants sit in their cars and keep their distance from one another, Hanks said “I know that everybody’s doing that right now, but, again, no ma’am. I’m not considering that.”

“… I believe with all my heart that with what’s going on in our society in America because of the virus, more than ever, we need God to work on our behalf,” Hanks said, “and I think shutting the church doors is like shutting God out.”

So far, Hanks said, no one, to his knowledge, in his congregation nor any of their relations has come down with the virus. However, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has said that it can take up to 14 days after exposure to the virus for symptoms to appear.

“I just pray to God that that doesn’t happen because obviously something different would have to take place if that happened here,” he said.

The Kansas governor’s order and other restrictions in place across the country meant to slow the spread of COVID-19 have raised questions about freedom of religious exercise. U.S. Attorney General William Barr said in a statement released Tuesday that “government may not impose special restrictions on religious activity that do not also apply to similar nonreligious activity.”

“While we believe that during this period there is a sufficient basis for the social distancing rules that have been put in place, the scope and justification of restrictions beyond that will have to be assessed based on the circumstances as they evolve,” Barr’s statement said.

States and local governments cannot single out or target any house of worship for special restrictions, the statement continues.

In Douglas County, the sheriff’s office has already taken action against one problematic nonreligious gathering spot. A road has been temporarily closed near the dam at Clinton Lake, which is a popular spot to watch sunsets. Earlier this month, the gatherings had grown to dozens of people getting out of their cars and interacting, the Journal-World reported.

Heritage Baptist has temporarily halted its outreach programs, including services at the Douglas County Jail, Topeka Correctional Facility and nursing homes, as well as its Sunday school, Hanks said. But he said the church’s Sunday and Wednesday services were “the bare minimum that we need to do.”

Hanks noted that the pews are separated to practice social distancing, and some people have been wearing masks and gloves.

“We’re very concerned about the virus and taking several precautions,” he said.

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