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Pastor Rips Up Cease-and-Desist Letter During Sermon, Says 'We're Gonna Do It God's Way'

For a Republican governor, Maryland’s Larry Hogan hasn’t exactly been at the tip of the spear when it comes to reopening.
This probably shouldn’t have surprised many. Hogan is, to a certain extent, a liberal Republican out of necessity; in a deep-blue state, a Republican politician in a statewide office is a profoundly endangered species, so it’s hardly surprising he’s not exactly Ron DeSantis.
One also suspects that’s not the only reason he’s that way, though. Hogan had been mentioned not infrequently as a potential primary challenger to Donald Trump in this year’s election and he’s managed to spar not infrequently with the president over policy regarding the novel coronavirus.
Thus, it’s not particularly surprising that Maryland isn’t opening up quite as fast as other states with Republican governors.
Even still, as of May 13, Hogan began allowing religious congregations to operate at 50 percent capacity so long as social distancing requirements are met. However, he also left it up to individual counties to determine whether or not they wanted to allow congregations to reconvene.
According to the Baltimore Sun, Baltimore County decided against it. County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr. said that even though there were declining hospitalizations due to the novel coronavirus throughout the state, there wasn’t enough testing in place to allow in-person religious services to resume.
The Rev. Stacey Shiflett, pastor of the Calvary Baptist Church in Dundalk, wasn’t entirely impressed with that explanation.
In a statement on his church’s website, Shiflett wrote that “the Baltimore County Executive, without conferring with the other Council members and in direct opposition to the Governor’s Roadmap to Recovery press conference, shut the churches again.”
He added that he “had no desire to repeat with the County Executive, that long process of letters and unanswered appeals that I had directed at the Governor.
“I decided, along with the backing of our Deacon Board to abide by our announcement to re-open our church on the 17th to 50% capacity – per the Governor’s Phase 1 guidelines.”
This naturally had consequences; his congregation received a cease-and-desist letter from the Baltimore County Department of Health and Human Services for holding services with more than 10 people.
So, he simply tore the letter up mid-sermon.
According to Fox News, Shiflett had been threatened with a $5,000 fine if he went ahead with in-person services in defiance of the Baltimore County order.
While his church was in compliance with Hogan’s order and socially distancing — only 100 members of the congregation showed up to the Wednesday service even though the building can hold 600 — he made sure to make a point out Baltimore County’s decision to target his church.
“News flash: Pharaoh doesn’t get to dictate to God’s people how they worship their God,” he said in a video of the sermon posted to Twitter.
“God’s the one that defines the parameters. God’s the one that communicates His will and His plan for His church, not Egypt.
“And I’m telling you right now — with this cease-and-desist letter in my hand, the Bible says to the New Testament church, ‘Not forsaking the assembling of yourselves together, as the manner of some is, but so much the more, as you see the day approaching.’
“And the closer we get to Jesus coming back, the more church we ought to be having, not less church!” he continued. “That’s God’s parameters.”
Shiflett then tore the cease-and-desist order up.
“So I’m tearing up this cease-and-desist order right here, and I’m telling you right now, we’re gonna do it God’s way! God tells us how to worship Him, nobody else gets to do that.”
Shiflett told Fox News that if the decision to reopen is ceded to the government in this circumstance, it becomes a dangerous slippery slope.
“Either we have liberty to worship or we have permission to worship,” Shiflett told Fox News. “It has become abundantly clear that if we settle for permission, we will never have liberty again.”
The viral video illustrates one of the great divides thus far regarding COVID-19 policy: Whether or not the right of religious congregations to meet under the First Amendment can be abrogated for an extended period of time because of a public health emergency.
At least in one of the first major test cases, the courts seem to have come down on the side of the congregations.
Earlier this month, a federal court ruled that severe restrictions on in-person services in Kentucky violated the First Amendment.
“A new virus sweeps the world, ravages our economy and threatens our health. Public officials, including the defendants in this case, make minute by minute decisions with the best of intentions and the goal of saving the health and lives of our citizens,” United States District Judge Gregory F. Van Tatenhove wrote in his decision, according to WBKO-TV.
“But what of that enduring Constitution in times like these? Does it mean something different because society is desperate for a cure or prescription?
“Simply put, that is the question presented here. Tabernacle Baptist Church wants to gather for corporate worship. They want to freely exercise their deeply held religious belief about what it means to be a faithful Christian. For them, it is “essential” that they do so. And they want to invoke the Constitution’s protection on this point.
“But the governor, by executive order, has put a stop to that. He can do that, but he must have a compelling reason for using his authority to limit a citizen’s right to freely exercise something we value greatly— the right of every American to follow their conscience on matters related to religion. As explained below, despite an honest motive, it does not appear at this preliminary stage that reason exists.”
This is going to be something states will struggle with over the next few weeks and months — and it’s an issue, judging by this ruling, that states will likely be on the losing end of.
Churches aren’t just nightclubs or restaurants, inasmuch as they enjoy robust protections under the aegis of the First Amendment. Extended lockdown rules, some of which may last longer than a year, likely aren’t going to hold up to constitutional muster the same way they thus far haven’t in Kentucky.
For now, pastors like Shiflett will be the ones tearing up the Baltimore County Department of Health and Human Services’ cease-and-desist orders.
One gets the feeling that if the county chooses to continue to issue them, the courts will be the next ones ripping them up.

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