A local church held Bible study Wednesday in spite of five church leaders being cited the previous Sunday for breaking Gov. Brian Kemp’s executive order to observe social distancing.
Wednesday night, over 20 cars were parked at the Redeeming Love Church of God the Bibleway, a church housed in a small building on Hwy. 67 shared with another business. Music and preaching could be heard outside, and hand sanitizing stations were set up outside the door. A sign posted warned visitors to observe social distancing of six feet apart, according to Statesboro Herald photographer Scott Bryant, who was at the scene.
As of 8:30 p.m. Wednesday night, no law enforcement had appeared to interrupt the service, he said.
On April 5, the church held Sunday service, and videos on the church Facebook page showed about 30 people, shoulder to shoulder, worshiping, singing and occasionally touching each other. The following Tuesday, two days after Georgia state troopers issued five people for reckless conduct by violating the state order, Pastor Clayton Cowart told the Statesboro Herald he intended to continue holding church services inside, regardless of the order.
Defying the social distancing mandate is dangerous, said Bulloch County Public Safety and Emergency Management Agency Director Ted Wynn. Bulloch County now has 12 confirmed cases of COVID-19, over double the number reported Friday. While there have been no deaths to date, five patients with confirmed cases of the coronavirus are being treated at East Georgia Regional Medical Center, he said, adding that severe outbreaks of the virus in some parts of the state, such as Albany, have been linked to people in close proximity at two funerals.
Cowart argued that “prayer is essential” and that holding church service is a Constitutional right. However, representatives of several local churches told the Statesboro Herald Wednesday are offering members livestreamed services and other options that are compliant with Kemp’s order.
Bulloch County Sheriff’s Capt. Todd Hutchens said Wednesday afternoon that church services are allowable if held outside, in drive-in format or where people can be spaced six feet apart.
Cited but still meeting
Eli Porter, also a pastor at Redeeming Love, said Wednesday he usually has “50 to 60” members for Bible study. He said chairs would be spaced apart Wednesday, but did not say how many people he could fit into the small rectangular room and still comply with the law.
GSP Post 45 Cpl. Matthew Sowell said the church was first warned Sunday night, but when troopers had to return after complaints and found around 30 members still clustered together, they issued citations.
Cowart said the citations won’t stop the church from convening. “It is our Constitutional right.”
Attending church is no more harmful than going to Wal-Mart, he said. However, local law enforcement is patrolling the stores and business that are open as well as churches and other gatherings, enforcing the social distancing law, Wynn said. Kemp’s mandate states people must stay six feet apart and gather in groups of less than 10.
Cowart said God’s law comes before any other law. “We plan to do our best to respect the law, but it is part of our Constitutional rights to worship.”
Church members are not asked to stay home if sick, nor are they asked to stay six feet apart from each other in the church, he said Tuesday. However, Wednesday there were signs posted about the social distancing law. “We respect the Governor, but as a church we are called to worship.”
He doesn’t feel like his members gathering in such close proximity is a danger. Videos show the members elbow to elbow, in a small room.
Cowart said “prayer is essential,” just like groceries and medicine. “Our faith doesn’t change in the times of a crisis.”
While the Redeeming Love Church of God The Bibleway congregation and leaders may not fear for their own health, public safety officials are concerned that they may spread illness to others in the community.
“Local law enforcement is assisting GSP in enforcing the Governor’s order on assembly of less than 10 and social distancing,” Wynn said.
In rural areas, Bulloch County Sheriff’s deputies have not yet encountered any serious violations, according to Hutchens. Inside the Statesboro city limits, police have had to break up a few small parties of young people, said Statesboro Police Chief Mike Broadhead. Sowell said the church incident Sunday is the only encounter state troopers have experienced since the mandate came about.
‘EMA is imploring all churches and assemblies to comply and help limit the spread (of the coronavirus),” Wynn said. “Social distancing will save lives.”
Wednesday, Kemp extended the “shelter in place” order until April 30. The state of emergency was extended through May 13.
As of 8:30 p.m. Wednesday, no law enforcement had interrupted the church Bible study. GSP and Bulloch County Sheriff’s officials would not say whether further action was planned for later.
However, Bulloch County is taking violations seriously, Wynn said. Law enforcement officers were overheard on police radio this week conducting compliance checks. Also, Bulloch and Candler county first responders received personal protection equipment (PPEs) Tuesday thanks to the county “working with the State Operations Center for additional PPE,” he said.
If anyone sees violations of social distancing they don’t need to
call 911, but instead call local law enforcement directly. Bulloch Sheriff’s Office (912-764-8888),
Statesboro PD (912-764-9911) and Georgia State Patrol- Post 45 (912-688-6999.).
Herald reporter Holli Deal Saxon may be reached at 912-489-9414.