Tony Evers: Churches Are ‘Non-essential’

M.D. Kittle,

MADISON — Falls Baptist Church just wants to bring its faith family together for outside Easter Services — in as safe a way as possible amid the COVID-19 outbreak.

But Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers and his ever-expanding emergency orders curtailing civil liberties aim to put an end to such sacred gatherings.

The Menomonee Falls church hopes to hold drive-in-style worship, in which parishioners tune into the Easter services on their vehicle radios in Falls Baptists’ parking lot. They would be together in spirit and body, but a safe distance apart with their car windows up. It would seem they would be complying with Evers’ edict demanding people stay at least six feet apart.

“This just lets us get the church family together,” Stephen Van Gelderen, pastor of discipleship and administration at the church his father, Pastor Wayne Van Gelderen Jr., has led for more than 30 years.

Church leaders checked in with city officials first. They were told it would be okay to go forward with the outdoor services if parishioners remain in their vehicles, don’t car pool and the congregation has no contact with each other.

But on Friday, Evers’ office issued a “Clarification … Regarding Religious Services.” It bluntly states that “faith-based organizations or places of worship” are not “essential.”

“The intent of the order is to limit gatherings of people and person-to-person contact in an effort to protect the health and safety of all Wisconsinites by slowing the spread of COVID-19,” the notice states.

Evers and his faithful liberal team assure that the order violating the First Amendment rights of places of worship “is not a statement against the essential nature of faith and fellowship.”

“Taking time at home to be mindful, meditate and pray are great ways to practice spiritual beliefs individually or as a family,” states the clarification, which reads like a manual on worship from a secular bureaucrat.

The same governor who brought Wisconsin a “science-themed” holiday tree at the Capitol, is shutting down Easter as Christians have long practiced it — all in the name of public safety.

While the pandemic, by necessity, has forced social separation, critics of the policy rightly ask how the governor has arrived at some of his unilateral decisions.

“It’s okay to go to the grocery store. It’s okay to go to Walmart. It’s okay to get an abortion. But it’s not okay to go to church in your car with your windows up?” said state Rep. Janel Brandtjen (R-Menomonee Falls). “It’s so ridiculous, you have to wonder to yourself if Gov. Evers is anti-Christian.”

Health officials statewide laid on the guilt in explaining why the Evers administration must take the restrictive step.

“Physical distancing is our only defense against this virus. Community, faith- and spiritual-based organizations have an important role in slowing the spread of COVID-19, especially among  high-risk populations. These organizations often nobly serve those who are most vulnerable, including people with heart disease, lung disease, and diabetes. These community members are at higher risk of developing severe COVID-19 illness,” wrote Susan Powers, Health Officer/Public Health Manager for Door County.

Evers’ clarification notice seems to contradict a lengthy memo he sent out last Friday noting churches are considered “essential” but, “Any gathering must include fewer than 10 people in a room or confined space at a time.”

More so, the Evers administration’s new edict seems to contract a Legislative Council opinion produced Wednesday at the request of  Sen. Dave Craig (R-Town of Vernon).

“Under both Emergency Orders #8 and #12 it is permissible for a religious service to be held outside, including a drive-up service, as long as there is compliance with certain restrictions specified in the orders,” the memo states. “If the religious service is held in an unconfined outdoor space, there is no limit to the number of individuals that may attend at any one time.”

Craig said he had not seen Evers’ clarification notice. He was infuriated by the confusing communication.

“Now we’re getting piecemeal clarifications based on letters to individual health departments,” the senator said. “This is not something that is serious governance.

“It should be the clear word of the governor. You can’t have the governor waffling with something as serious and important as individual rights.”

Republican leadership has asked Evers to make exceptions for churches during these holiest of days for many, if they can come up with procedures ensuring social distancing.

The administration’s clarification notice does note that the religious may “view or listen to almost any form of religious services through television, radio, online video recordings, live steams or podcasts.”

They advise church-goers to speak to their “religious or spiritual leaders to learn about other ways you can practice from your home.”