Heritage Baptist Church holds outdoor service; deputy responds for protester

photo by: Mackenzie Clark

Congregants listen to a sermon from under a large tent outside Heritage Baptist Church on Wednesday, April 15, 2020.

A deputy from the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office made a brief appearance at Wednesday evening services at Heritage Baptist Church northwest of Lawrence — but he didn’t disturb the congregation.

He was called there to speak to the sole protester, a woman who stood on the corner at North 1800 and East 800 roads holding a sign that read “Don’t be selfish — Go home — God will be there too.”

The church has drawn some public scrutiny after holding services on Easter Sunday, despite Gov. Laura Kelly’s executive order banning public gatherings of 10 or more people in order to slow the spread of the coronavirus disease, COVID-19.

photo by: Mackenzie Clark

A deputy with the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office gestures toward the intersection nearby Heritage Baptist Church, 1781 East 800 Road, where a protester stood with a sign opposing the church’s decision to hold services on Wednesday, April 15, 2020.

The Rev. Scott Hanks, the congregation’s leader, spoke briefly with the Journal-World prior to the start of the service, as music welcomed folks meandering from the parking lot to a large tent set up outside the church. Hanks said the church had determined the executive order would still allow for outdoor religious services.

“We’re still assembling,” he said — just not in an enclosed space.

That was the main concern the pastor had shared with the Journal-World on Tuesday: “We still believe that the Bible commands for us to attend church.” He also said he would not limit services to alternative means of delivery, such as using online streaming or having members self-isolate in their parked cars.

Jenn Hethcoat, public information officer for the sheriff’s office, said via email Wednesday afternoon that the agency had received additional guidelines from the Kansas Division of Emergency Management and consulted with other members of Douglas County Unified Command to clarify the issue of religious services under the statewide stay-at-home order.

“Religious services held as outlined in Governor Kelly’s executive orders 20-16 and 20-18, which include being held outdoors and observing social distancing requirements for non-family members, are allowed,” she said.

Asked for clarification, she said the stipulations — being outdoors and observing social distancing — were mutually inclusive. Both must be followed, or the gathering could hypothetically be a violation subject to enforcement. And 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.”

The exact language of the governor’s executive order says this regarding religious services: “(T)his order prohibits gatherings of more than ten congregants or parishioners in the same building or confined or enclosed space. However, the number of individuals — such as preachers, lay readers, choir or musical performers, or liturgists — conducting or performing a religious service may exceed ten as long as those individuals follow appropriate safety protocols, including maintaining a six-foot distance between individuals and following other directives regarding social distancing, hygiene, and other efforts to slow the spread of COVID-19.”

On Wednesday evening, the shade of the tent provided limited visibility from the parking lot, but a Journal-World reporter estimated between 75 and 100 people of all ages were in attendance. Cars took up most spots in two of the three sides of the lot that encircles the church’s buildings. The Journal-World did not observe anyone wearing a mask.

photo by: Mackenzie Clark

Congregants arrive to a tent outside Heritage Baptist Church on Wednesday, April 15, 2020.

Reached by phone after the service, Hanks said each row of chairs under the tent was set up 6 feet apart for proper social distancing, but families could sit together.

Just because such gatherings may not be expressly forbidden does not mean they are encouraged, however. Public health officials nationwide have said that gatherings of any kind still pose a greater risk of spreading COVID-19 — even unknowingly, by people who are asymptomatic — and that people should self-isolate in their homes except for essential needs.

But the church’s change of venue was, at least, enough that Wednesday’s service would not trigger law enforcement action.

“The Sheriff’s Office and our partners in the Unified Command still strongly recommend citizens continue to stay home, including during participation in religious services,” Hethcoat said. “Our community continues to do an outstanding job following stay at home guidelines keeping each other healthy.”

After clearing up the concern of the protester possibly being on church property — she had been parked there, she explained, but she moved her vehicle when asked — the deputy who responded to the call told the protester that the church’s service had been discussed with the sheriff’s office.

The protester declined to give her name to the Journal-World, but she expressed frustration with the large gathering of families with children as COVID-19 continues to spread.

In its latest numbers, Lawrence-Douglas County Public Health reported two new cases, bringing the county’s total to 42. Because of a shortage of testing supplies, the state has fallen to 50th in the nation in tests performed per capita, the Journal-World reported Wednesday.

But Hanks has defended the decision to keep regular services going, stating that COVID-19 has not hit Douglas County or the state of Kansas as hard as it has hit other areas, and he does not believe at this point that it’s a “justifiable cause” to shut the church’s doors, which he said he likens to “shutting God out.”

“I just feel in my heart that God wants us to have church,” he said Wednesday. “… The way you have church is you assemble, together. You don’t assemble separately.”

Kelly has extended the stay-at-home order for another two weeks, until May 3, she announced Wednesday. Hanks said the plan will be to continue holding services outside in the tent “until this thing is over.”

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