Police shutdown of West Bend church service a ‘misunderstanding’


Reverend Joseph Fisher was in the middle of his Palm Sunday sermon when the police arrived.

The pastor of the Lutheran Church Pilgrim has a habit of preaching to hundreds of worshipers at his church in West Bend, which has around 700 members. Since Gov. Tony Evers’ stay-at-home order went into effect in March, they have strictly limited in-person attendance to no more than 18 people in two separate rooms, all sitting more than six feet from one of the other.

That did not stop a neighbor from calling the police to report the rally. West Bend officers told Pilgrim Lutheran pastors on Sunday that they were violating the governor’s order and removed Fisher’s members and associate pastor.

The moment was captured on the church’s YouTube video of the service, which is how most of her congregation participated in the services. About 30 minutes after the video begins, Fisher stops to respond to a member who tells him the members are forced to return home. “Everyone?” he asks.

The moment is one example of the still unstable relationship some religious communities have with government efforts to slow the spread of COVID-19. As Christians prepare for the Easter weekend and Jews keep Passover, it is also an example of how, even amid unprecedented adaptations by religious communities, there remain points of friction in quarantine period.

On Thursday, the Wisconsin Conservative Institute for Law and Freedoms, in a letter to Evers, asked the governor for “immediate clarification” on whether the state ordinance also bans open religious services. air. Evers, whose “safer at home” ordinance explicitly designates “religious entities” as essential businesses, said in a press release Thursday that drive-in services were permitted under the ordinance – all such as gatherings of 10 people or less in a room.

Fisher called the closure of his church’s Palm Sunday service a good faith “misunderstanding” and said West Bend police later apologized to him and admitted that Lutheran pilgrim services were being conducted legally. Fisher pointed out that the church took precautions such as disinfecting hymns and refraining from serving Communion at the church altar.

“I think it’s a situation where we weren’t doing anything wrong, the police didn’t do anything wrong and the neighbor didn’t do anything wrong, and yet it made a fuss,” Fisher said in an interview with WPR, referring to the online reaction to the event.

Yet many churches and other faith communities have chosen to cancel in-person services entirely, relying on the same online meeting tools used by private businesses to stay connected during a time of social isolation.

In March, the Archdiocese of Milwaukee announced that its in-person Easter and Holy Week services would be canceled. Pastors across the state have followed suit, using video services, podcasts, Facebook broadcasts, and other adaptations to stay connected to their communities. In Baldwin, the Lutheran Church of Peace launched a drive-thru worship service the kind that Evers said Thursday is allowed.

But even though many churches have changed their practices, the back and forth between the conservative think tank and the governor is evidence that there has been a conflict between some religious and political leaders and the public health boards that all of them have. residents keep their distance from social interactions.

Assembly Republicans on Friday called on Evers to suspend social distancing requirements for religious communities to allow Easter and Passover services to continue. Evers declined the request, expressing sympathy for religious communities, but calling for the necessary restrictions “to protect the health and safety of all Wisconsinians.”

A similar dynamic has also manifested itself in local health services.

In Marathon County, the health department’s public information official released a statement saying “Wisconsin’s government and religious communities must work together to stop the spread of COVID.”

“We can sympathize with religious entities that have different services,” the statement from Public Information Officer Judy Burrows read, but “social distancing and avoiding direct contact with others is the only way effective in reducing the spread of COVID. “

In Douglas County, health worker Kathy Ronchi also expressed sympathy for the faith communities, but recommended not to meet in person.

“It is a difficult time for all and we have to make big sacrifices for a little while to protect the health of our community,” said Ronchi. “We look forward to the day when we can once again allow in-person gatherings. In the meantime, we ask that you stay in touch with each other through phone calls, video chats, text messages and more. ‘other means. “

For some faith communities, especially minority faiths, these online options come with their own risks. Nationally, some synagogues have suffered “zombombing” attacks by racist and anti-Semitic groups during their online services. And not all members of all communities have access to online services. Fisher noted that approximately 100 members of Pilgrim Lutheran do not have internet at home.

Fisher stressed that he did not view the Evers Home Security Order as a restriction on the free expression of religion. He’s also not interested in flouting the law – like, say, a pastor at a mega-church in Tampa, Florida recently did.

“We’re trying to make sure we don’t hurt anyone,” Fisher said. “But we also try to take care of our members.”

This weekend, they will be holding Easter services at 6 a.m. and 8 a.m. on Sunday, he said, and the first 18 people to show up will be able to attend in person, in two separate rooms.


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