Worcester city officials this week slammed a local pastor’s decision to hold a church service Sunday that violated the state’s order banning gatherings of more than 10 people amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
In separate statements Monday, Mayor Joseph M. Petty and City Manager Edward M. Augustus Jr. criticized Rev. Kris Casey’s decision to hold a service that, according to the Worcester Telegram & Gazette, drew 56 people Sunday to Adams Square Baptist Church.
Petty said he was “deeply disappointed and dismayed that Pastor Kristopher D. Casey chose to violate the orders of the Governor and the City Manager, and chose to endanger his parishioners and our city as a whole by holding services.”
Across Massachusetts, Petty said, “men and women of faith have chosen to follow the best medical advice of professionals and conduct worship services virtually. This is a time when we all must make sacrifices for the good of our neighbors.”
His words were echoed by Augustus, who said Monday in a letter to Casey that hosting gatherings of more than 10 people in violation of the order “flies in the face of the best medical advice at this time and increases the very real chance of contact spread of the virus to countless others.”
The order, Augustus wrote, is not meant to suppress religious expression but is “reasonably related to the demands of of the public health [crisis] and the exigencies of the situation.” He said the order must be enforced and reiterated that Casey “may not gather” more than 10 people until the order, which Gov. Charlie Baker on Tuesday extended to May 18, “expires or is rescinded.”
Voice and e-mail messages left with Casey’s church weren’t immediately returned Tuesday afternoon.
From the pulpit Sunday, he offered a prayer in which he said “Heavenly Father, it is our great privilege and pleasure to be worshiping with you here this morning,” according to a recording of the service uploaded to YouTube. “Lord, thank you for the fact that we here in America have the ability to worship our creator and we our protected. Our founding fathers knew in 1780 how precious and valuable this was going to be. ... Thank you for the protections that we have here in America that other countries do not have around the world.”
Casey also sent a letter last week to Baker, Petty, and Worcester Police Chief Steven M. Sargent informing them of his intention to hold Sunday’s service.
He wrote in the letter, which was posted to the church’s Facebook page, that he decided to hold the in-person service “after much research, consultation and prayer,” adding that the church “will also gather at the same location on Wednesday evenings for our midweek service.”
Casey wrote that his congregation would observe appropriate social distancing guidelines.
Referencing the state’s order banning gatherings of more than 10, Casey added, “I notice that ‘liquor stores’ and ‘garden centers,’ for example, are designated under Exhibit A of the Order as COVID-19 Essential Services, but that religious services of 10 or more people are not. In fact, it would seem that religious services are the only essential function whose core activity – association for the purpose of worship – has been basically eliminated. Such a shut-down of religious services violates clear Constitutional rights under the 1st and 14th Amendments.”
Asked Tuesday during his daily briefing about Casey’s decision to hold Sunday service, Baker said extending the emergency order to houses of worship was a hard decision. “I’m also very sympathetic to the fact that lots of data from around the globe” where religious services continued unimpeded showed “the virus went all over the place,” Baker said.
In a separate statement Monday, Augustus said the city has delivered a letter to Casey’s church reminding them that hosting gatherings of more than 10 is currently prohibited.
“While we certainly respect equality, religious freedom and the frustrations of not being able to host traditional public services, the Governor’s order is clear that it applies to the public safety of everyone,” Augustus said. "Self-exempting and disregarding this order puts the health of both parishioners and the wider public at risk.”
Asked about possible sanctions the city may levy against Casey, Augustus’s office pointed to a provision in the state order indicating violations could bring a warning for the first offense, a fine of up to $300 for a second offense, and "a fine up to $500 or term of imprisonment or both” for further offenses.