Churches provide a needly weekly reprieve from the harsh elements of the world and help people get by increasingly harsh times. Additionally, church might be the one place Montanans can go during the coronavirus pandemic to maintain a sense of balance and community. Combined with the reality churches often serve as the hub of charity work, food banks, and mercy ministries, closing church house doors might prove to be a bad decision for Lewis and Clark County.
However, Lewis and Clark Public Health on Thursday ordered church gatherings to close to help prevent the spread of COVID-19. Churches, along with restaurants, bars, and casinos, has been extended until March 31. The previous order did not mention churches and only forbade other establishments from opening up until March 23.
Public Health Officer Drenda Niemann said it was “inevitable” they would have cases of the novel coronavirus in Helena and thus assured the public that the changes were necessary.
Niemann said, “We need to take aggressive steps right now to limit the number of people who get sick and spread out the cases so we don’t overwhelm the medical system that will be needed to take care of them.”
Broadwater county has also issued a similar edict, closing the doors of community churches.
Broadwater County Public Health Nurse, Teresa Monson, told the press, “It’s sad, but I think there are other ways for people to practice their faith for a couple of weeks.”
Of course, the First Amendment of the United States of America does not empower a Montana nurse in a county bureaucracy to determine how one may exercise their religion. The First Amendment reads that there shall be, “no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”
Churches will have to determine for themselves, rather than by government decree, whether or not they should stay open. County law enforcement will have to decide exactly how far they’re willing to go to restrict those civil liberties. With Missoula County promising not to arrest thieves and vandals, one wonders if they’re willing to arrest church-goers.