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Pastors across Massachusetts sign letter asking Baker to reopen churches

Governor Charlie Baker led the state's daily coronavirus press briefing on Thursday.
Governor Charlie Baker led the state's daily coronavirus press briefing on Thursday.Chris Van Buskirk/Pool/file

About 260 pastors from churches across Massachusetts called on Governor Charlie Baker to allow them to reopen their doors as the state prepares to ease restrictions imposed in March to slow the spread of COVID-19.

The ministers say churches should be among the first wave of establishments allowed to reopen after the governor’s order expires May 18.

The signers are largely the leaders of small, independent congregations. They include a few clergy each from the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Boston and the Massachusetts Council of Churches, but neither of those organizations signed the letter sent Thursday.

“It is according to our nature to gather together, to be meeting in person. It’s a palpably different experience," the Rev. James Hopkins, pastor of the First Lutheran Church of Boston and one of the letter’s signers, said in a phone interview.

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Hopkins said many churches have been offering online services and have provided as much support as possible to their congregations through the spiritual and emotional challenges of the pandemic. But there are important elements that cannot be conducted online, he said, such as the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, or Communion.

"It’s not the way God designed his church, and that’s been clearly experienced by us,” Hopkins said.

At his daily news conference on Friday, Baker said representatives of churches are due to meet on Saturday with a panel advising him about easing restrictions.

A plan to reopen houses of worship must be done in a way “to ensure that it’s not a short-term thing." He noted that many who attend worship services are age 50 and over, a demographic hard hit by the coronavirus.

“That’s exactly who we need to pay attention to,” when balancing public health concerns with a reopening plan.

In the letter, pastors wrote that they understand the dangers of COVID-19, which has infected more than 75,000 Massachusetts residents and killed more than 4,700, according to state data released Friday.

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The pastors said that they have been “grieved” to see that Baker designated as “essential businesses” such enterprises as “marijuana dispensaries, liquor stores and abortion clinics” while closing churches.

Baker allowed medical marijuana providers to remain open but closed recreational pot shops. Abortion services are provided by family health care facilities that were allowed to remain open as medical providers.

For faithful Christians, they write, church is essential and should be considered so by the state.

“Your order of March 23rd would forbid us from gathering together to worship God, but the word of God commands us to not forsake the assembling of ourselves together,” the ministers wrote. “We have done our best to temporarily adapt to extraordinary circumstances, but this must not continue.”

They suggest that by denying churches the right to hold services, the Baker administration is infringing on both their First Amendment rights to freedom of religion and assembly and a liberty enshrined in the 1780 state Constitution: “It is the right as well as the duty of all men in society, publicly and at stated seasons, to worship the Supreme Being.”

The pastors who signed the letter represent a fraction of the state’s thousands of churches.

But they are not alone in pushing hard for a return to normal. Late last month, Worcester officials threatened to fine Adams Square Baptist Church after its pastor, the Rev. Kris Casey, held a Sunday service that drew dozens, in violation of Baker’s emergency order banning gatherings of more than 10.

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Casey appeared to back down afterward, holding a service the following Wednesday that was limited to fewer than 10 parishioners. He is not among the letter’s signers.

The signers include just a handful of members of the Massachusetts Council of Churches, which represents more than 1,000 churches from 18 Protestant and Orthodox denominations across the state.

The Rev. Laura Everett, the organization’s executive director, and the Rev. Jennie Barrett Siegal, the organization’s president, said in a joint statement Thursday night that they “believe our elected and appointed officials recognize that churches are an essential part of life in Massachusetts and will work collaboratively to prioritize the care of those hurting most during this pandemic.”

The Archdiocese of Boston and most of its 280 parishes also did not participate. The archdiocese is “committed to working with public officials on the timing and conditions of reopening churches for Masses,” spokesman Terrence Donilon said in a statement Thursday evening.

“By respecting the state’s guidance for the practices necessary to mitigate the spread of Covid-19, we believe we will do our part to keep members of the community healthy and safe,” Donilon continued. “We hope and pray for the return of public celebrations when it will be safe to do so by way of new directives.”

Kathy McCabe of the Globe Staff contributed to this story.

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Jeremy C. Fox can be reached at jeremy.fox@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jeremycfox.