Religious leaders across the region are split over whether houses of worship should be considered essential during the coronavirus pandemic after President Donald Trump called on governors across the country to allow them to reopen this weekend.

“Today I’m identifying houses of worship — churches, synagogues and mosques — as essential places that provide essential services,” Trump said during a hastily arranged press conference at the White House.

Despite the threat of further spreading the virus, Trump said that, “governors need to do the right thing and allow these very important essential places of faith to open right now, for this weekend.”

And he warned that if governors don’t abide by his request, he will “override” them, though it’s unclear what authority he has to do so.

In Pennsylvania, places of worship were deemed essential by Gov. Tom Wolf, but still had to follow orders of maintaining groups of 10 or less people to help thwart the spread of the virus. Most religious organizations turned to online services or found other ways to host in-person services such as at drive-in theaters.

But for some, including Marc Likins, pastor at Harvest Baptist Church in Fawn Township, those measures were not enough.

“We’ve done our best to stream, we’ve done our best to stay connected, we’ve done our best to call each other and to get together on a livestream and look at a scripture together,” he said. “And while it is better than nothing, for sure it’s not the same. It’s not the same and we’ve been longing to be together.”

In-person services, Likins said, is where “we all share the same heartbeat when we look at the scriptures and we try to understand them and it unifies us and brings us together and we miss that.”

Likins, who believes the work done at the church is essential, is appreciative of Trump’s remark, adding that pastors and Christians have likely sent emails to legislatures and governors.

Still, the church does not yet have a date for when in-person services could resume, Likins said. He added that small gatherings resumed at the church once the region moved into the yellow phase, which lifted some restrictions and raised the number of people who could gather from 10 to 25.

When Harvest Baptist Church does reopen, he said it will likely be at half capacity.

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Pastor Martin Ankrum, of First Presbyterian Church Greensburg, agreed that religious organizations are essential, but said that he does not know how in-person services could have continued throughout the pandemic without risking people to potential exposure.

“I think for safety’s sake, an abundance of caution as they say, I think churches have done the right thing by resorting the virtual means of holding services rather than in-person,” Ankrum said.

Ankrum also appreciates Trump’s remark, but added that the downtown Greensburg church will rely on guidelines issued by Gov. Wolf for a date when in-person services could resume.

Ken Turkewitz, interim executive director at Congregation Beth Shalom in Squirrel Hill, said participation in online services has almost doubled compared to in-person services. Still, he does not feel that religious organizations should be considered essential.

“I understand that it is very important for a lot of people,” he said. “We need to serve the soul, especially in a time like this, but there are other ways of doing it too. … I believe that the protection of society overrides the need for people to come into the building and have the spiritual needs found face-to-face.”

At Beth Shalom, the focus in not on when in-person services can resume; rather, it is focused on reopening their early learning center.

“That’s a priority because having a place for the little kids to come is an early necessity in order for parents who are essential to do other things, to be able to get away and do those other things,” he said. “The critical personnel with little kids right now are kind of stuck.”

Turkewitz declined to speak on Trump’s comments.

In the Catholic Church, the Diocese of Greensburg and Pittsburgh will both resume in-person services June 1, with several precautions in place including face masks and social distancing. Officials with either organization were not available for comment Friday afternoon.

National debate

During Trump’s press conference, he took issue with other businesses and services that have been allowed to continue to operate.

“Some governors have deemed liquor stores and abortion clinics as essential” but not churches, he said. “It’s not right. So I’m correcting this injustice and calling houses of worship essential.”

Wolf addressed the president’s comments, saying, “We actually never shut down the religious organizations. We did, however, shut down liquor stores.”

The topic has been at the center of debate over the past month as churches across the country have reopened their doors, causing, in some cases, a spike in virus numbers.

A person who attended a religious service on Mother’s Day at a church in Northern California that defied the governor’s orders against reopening later tested positive for the coronavirus, exposing more than 180 churchgoers.

A church in Arkansas saw similar cases, The New York Times reported, when 35 people tested positive for covid-19 and three died. Another 26 people who came in contact with those originally infected also tested positive, resulting in one death.

And like the Northern California church, others across the country have also moved to defy governor’s orders by reopening before it was deemed safe to do so.

In Minnesota, after Democratic Gov. Tim Walz this week declined to lift restrictions on churches, Roman Catholic and some Lutheran leaders said they would defy his ban and resume worship services. They called the restrictions unconstitutional and unfair since restaurants, malls and bars were allowed limited reopening.

Earlier this month, two Pennsylvania lawmakers proposed a bill to prevent the state from restricting religious gatherings during the coronavirus pandemic or any future emergency.

State Rep. Eric Nelson, R-Westmoreland, and Rep. Clint Owlett, R-Tioga, introduced House Bill 2530, which would amend the state’s Religious Freedom Protection Act of 2002 to prohibit the limitation of religious gatherings during a state of emergency.

“Our religious community is very confused,” Nelson said. “They don’t want to violate a law, but they’re also extremely frustrated.”

Following Trump’s announcement, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released new guidelines for communities of faith that include taking steps to limit the size of gatherings and considering holding services outdoors or in large, well-ventilated areas.

“It is safe to reopen your churches if you do so in accordance with the guidelines,” said White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany.

Wolf told religious leaders Friday, “Your first mission is to keep your parishioners safe, your congregants safe. That’s always been true.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Megan Tomasic is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Megan at 724-850-1203, mtomasic@triblive.com or via Twitter .

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