ABC News Corona Virus Government. Response

As states crack down on gatherings, some religious exemptions could keep pews full

Some states have not barred churches from gathering despite COVID-19.

Despite repeated warnings from health experts about the risk of social interaction amid the novel coronavirus outbreak, governors in at least four states have exempted houses of worship from statewide bans on mass gatherings, and this weekend will offer a first test to see if any congregations forge ahead despite the warnings.

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat, has banned gatherings of 50 or more and signed a statewide stay-at-home order on Monday. But both mandates explicitly exempt houses of worship from the misdemeanor penalty for violators.

"That’s an area we don’t have the ability to directly enforce or control," Whitmer said during an appearance on "Fox News Sunday."

She said she felt pressure from Republicans in the state legislature to include the exemption and said her hands were tied by the separation of church and state.

Democratic Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly tightened restrictions on mass gatherings in her state to no more than 10 people. But much like with Michigan, she exempted houses of worship as long as congregants engage in appropriate social distancing. Ohio officials carved out exemptions for religious gatherings, including weddings and funerals, from its stay-at-home order, on top of a broad exemption for any gathering "for the purpose of the expression of First Amendment protected speech." And this week, New Mexico Gov. Michelle Luhan Grisham (D) imposed a ban on gatherings of five or more that excludes those "congregated in a church, synagogue, mosque, or other place of worship."

Not everyone believes that imposing constraints on religious gatherings would run afoul of constitutional protections.

Rachel Laser, the president and CEO of the nonprofit advocacy group Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, said the governors are misinterpreting restrictions on impeding religious expression. She says the Constitution actually requires religious and secular institutions be treated the same.

"The Constitution not only permits it, but demands it," she said in a statement. "Such restrictions do not violate religious freedom; they ensure religious freedom is not misused in ways that risk people’s lives."

Laser’s organization has tracked mass gathering bans by state, and cites numerous instances in which COVID-19 has spread through congregations, sometimes resulting in deaths.

"We recognize that many people find solace in attending religious services, especially during uncertain times such as these, and thus share in the deep sorrow that the already challenging coronavirus situation also means temporarily halting in-person religious services," Laser said.

She applauded the houses of worship that are taking creative approaches to maintaining their fellowship in this time of social distancing, including streaming services online.

"We may be physically apart, but we will get through this public health crisis together -- even if it’s together in new ways," Laser said.

In Michigan, Whitmer has been urging houses of worship not to host services, despite the exemption. But last weekend some churches in the state were still holding services. Greater Grace Temple in Detroit welcomed about 200 worshipers last Sunday – four times more than the state’s mass gatherings ban allows, but far fewer than the 4,000-seat sanctuary can hold.

"Unless you were a couple or a parent and children, everyone was sitting about four to five seats separated from each other," Bishop Charles H. Ellis III of Greater Grace Temple told ABC News in a phone interview.

On Tuesday, following the governor’s stay-at-home order, Greater Grace Temple suspended worship services for at least three weeks.

"We want to certainly cooperate and do our best to adhere to what she's asking us to do," Ellis said. "We certainly don't want to be above the system."

Even in states with strict bans on mass gatherings of any kind, some faith groups are continuing to worship together.

In New York, which is now the epicenter of the outbreak in the United States, local news reports indicate many ultra-Orthodox Jews in Brooklyn have anguished over the ban, with many refusing to comply. Last week, The New York Times reported that the fire department had to be called to break up hundreds of revelers celebrating at a Hasidic wedding in Brooklyn.

In Louisiana, the pastor at the Life Tabernacle Church outside of Baton Rouge, vowed to continue worship services for a congregation of more than 1,000 members, according to news reports. The Rev. Tony Spell told CNN, "If they close every door in this city, then I will close my doors. But you can't say the retailers are essential but the church is not. That is a persecution of the faith."

About a dozen states still have not banned mass gatherings at all.

One of those states is Arkansas, where a parish in the small town of Greers Ferry is mourning the loss of a 91-year-old door greeter after 34 members of the 80-person congregation became infected with COVID-19 at a church gathering.

President Donald Trump has told the American people he is holding on to the hope that normal life will resume by Easter, so there can be "packed churches all over our country."

Back in Michigan, one church has found a new way to safely worship. All God’s People Church in Roseville is hosting what Rev. W.J. Rideout III calls "drive-in" service in the parking lot where parishioners stay in their cars.

"I’m the only one outside preaching and ministering God’s words to people for safety measures," he said, adding, "Ecclesiastes says, you know, 'There's a time to embrace and there's a time to refrain from the embracing.' So this is that moment."

ABC News intern Mel Madarang contributed to this report.