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Archbishop Bernard Hebda of St. Paul and Minneapolis, Minnesota.

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May 21, 2020 (LifeSiteNews) – The Catholic bishops of Minnesota along with state’s Lutheran leaders have informed their governor that they will defy his continued lockdown order for houses of worship and will begin public religious services in time for Pentecost.

The bold move was announced in separate letters sent simultaneously to Minnesota Governor Tim Walz and Attorney General Keith Ellison from Most Rev. Bernard A. Hebda, Archbishop of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis; from the presidents of the two Lutheran Church Minnesota districts; and from the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, the attorney group working on behalf of the reopening churches. 

The religious leaders chose to act in defiance of the governor after he revealed his plan last week to reopen commerce in the state while keeping in place the limit for church services to ten people or less. Weeks of dialogue with the governor aimed at achieving equal treatment for houses of worship had reportedly gone nowhere.    

“The order allows malls, shops, and other retailers to open their doors at fifty percent capacity, allows businesses—from pet-grooming services to medical cannabis operations—to resume in-person operations, and even announces a phased plan for reopening bars and restaurants, but explicitly leaves in place bans on in-person worship services for more than ten people. Even Minnesota casinos are reopening starting May 26,” said the Becket attorneys in a press release.

“If malls, casinos, liquor stores, bars, and restaurants are reopening, why can’t Minnesota churches?” asked Eric Rassbach, vice president and senior counsel at Becket. “Our Constitution stands for ‘equal justice under law’ and imposing a special disability on churches is anything but. Governor Walz and Attorney General Ellison should ensure equal treatment for churches and houses of worship—especially because they are crucial to helping our nation overcome this crisis.”

“Darkness and despair have taken hold of so many of our fellow Americans in the face of the economic and social hardship of the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Archbishop Hebda. “Faith has always been a source of comfort and strength and now more than ever it is of the utmost importance that we are able to meet the spiritual needs of our community.”

“Throughout this crisis, we have been committed to modeling Christ’s love by protecting people from the spread of illness. That’s why it is so disheartening that the Governor has subordinated our spiritual well-being to the economic well-being of the State,” said Rev. Dr. Lucas Woodford, president of the Minnesota South District of The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod. “Now that the State has deemed the risk of spreading coronavirus low enough to reopen non-essential business, we respectfully believe that it is our right and duty to safely resume public ministry to the faithful even without the support of the Governor.”

While retail stores and other places of commerce are now allowed to operate at 50 percent capacity in Minnesota, as a sign of “good faith” the state’s Catholic and Lutheran leaders say they will resume in-person worship services at 33 percent capacity of their respective facilities.

Catholic bishops: Gov. Walz does not appreciate the role of church and faith

A 1,500-word letter addressed to the faithful and signed by the bishops of the state’s seven dioceses announced, “[W]e have chosen to move forward in the absence of any specific timeline laid out by Governor Walz and his Administration. We cannot allow an indefinite suspension of the public celebration of the Mass.”

Given our willingness to coordinate with the Governor, we are especially disappointed that his most recent order (20-56) does not address both the vital importance that faith plays in the lives of Americans, especially in this time of pandemic, and the fundamental religious freedom possessed by houses of worship that allows our country to thrive. The Governor’s remarks today further underscored a failure to appreciate the role of our Church and other faith groups in serving the community. The human cost to this pandemic has been extraordinary, not just in terms of lives lost to the virus but the rapidly growing problems of job loss, depression, crime and violence, and substance abuse. 

The bishops of Minnesota are united in our conviction that we can safely resume public Masses in accordance with both our religious duties and with accepted public health and safety standards. We can worship in a way that reflects both the love of God and the love of our neighbors (cf. Mark 12:30-31). Therefore, we are giving our parishes permission for the resumption of the public celebration of Mass on Tuesday, May 26, which will give us time to be ready for the celebration of Pentecost on May 31. Parishes will be required to follow the strict protocols we have published for sanitation and social distancing and will have to limit attendance to one-third of the seating capacity of the church. No one will be obliged to attend, as the bishops of Minnesota will continue to dispense from the obligation to attend Sunday Mass.

The letter is signed by:

  • Most Rev. Bernard A. Hebda, Archbishop of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis
  • Most Rev. Michael J. Hoeppner Bishop of the Diocese of Crookston
  • Most Rev. Donald J. Kettler Bishop of the Diocese of St. Cloud
  • Most Rev. John M. LeVoir, Bishop of the Diocese of New Ulm
  • Most Rev. John M. Quinn, Bishop of the Diocese of Winona-Rochester
  • Most Rev. Andrew H. Cozzens, Auxiliary Bishop of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis
  • Very Rev. James Bissonette, Diocesan Administrator of the Diocese of Duluth

The Minnesota bishops’ move to restart public Masses stands in contrast to other Catholic leaders, including Chicago Blase Cupich who, despite the governor of Illinois’ relaxing of stay-at-home orders, has made it difficult for parishes to restart public Masses.     

Earlier this week, the St. Charles Borromeo Society delivered a formal rejection of Cardinal Cupich’s reopening plan for Illinois churches, saying, “It is an unacceptable response to the needs of the Chicago area faithful.”

“We rejoice to see that Archbishop Hebda and the other Minnesota bishops have shown true [p]astoral care for their flock in challenging their Governor’s policy,” said Lisa Bergman, co-founder of the group, in a statement to the press.  

“It renews our confidence to see good shepherds like Archbishop Hebda insisting upon the right to feed their flock during this difficult time. We hope that other bishops will soon follow his lead,” she added.