Churches have differing opinions on mask mandate for religious ceremonies

CHARLOTTE — Mecklenburg County commissioners voted 5-4 on Wednesday night to mandate masks for indoor religious ceremonies.

At-Large Commissioner Leigh Altman made the motion and led the push for the change. The county’s mask mandate currently applies to almost all indoor setting except for religious ceremonies.

“I believe that we should protect people wherever they are, including when they are gathering as a faith community,” Altman said. “I don’t think there is a health reason for them to be exempted. In fact, We have had deaths here in Mecklenburg County from worship that was not socially distanced wearing masks.”

The county’s largest known outbreak was tied to United House of Prayer for All People. Their convocation late last year was connected to more than 200 COVID cases and 12 deaths. At the time, Gov. Roy Cooper had a mask mandate in place for North Carolina but it did not say people inside churches had to wear them. His previous order dealing with gathering limits in places of worship was shot down in court.

Channel 9 reached out to several local churches and many of them told us they’re already requiring masks.

The choir, church leaders and the congregation at First Presbyterian have been wearing masks for weeks. Senior Pastor Rev. Pendleton Peery said the church started requiring masks before the countywide mandate went into effect in August.

“We enjoyed a month in June with no masks, but when numbers went back up we were very quick to institute the mask mandate and that has been an non-issue for my congregation,” Peery said.

Several churches have posted “masks required” messages online, but for those who have a “masks recommended” policy -- like the Charlotte Diocese -- it will be a big change.

Freedom House, which has sites across Charlotte, is strongly against mask mandates. Pastor Penny Maxwell posted on Instagram that she plans to fight back against the county’s decision.

“We will not -- N-O-T -- be requiring anybody at Freedom House to wear a mask,” she said. “We are not going to tell people you’ll to have worship with your mouth and face covered up. We are going to do business, and our lawyers are ready to go.”

“I think it’s sad that masks and vaccinations have become a political football,” Peery said. “I don’t see last night (Wednesday’s vote) as an intrusion to religious liberty at all. I think it’s a matter of public health.”

When commissioners asked the county attorney for legal advice during Wednesday’s meeting, he didn’t give strong direction either way.

“I’ve addressed the board and gave them advice on the current posture of the law relative to rules that infringe upon constitutional rights,” County Attorney Tyrone Wade said. “The courts basically said there needs to be a balance.”

Legal action is possible over the county’s move. The county has a severability clause in the mask mandate. If someone sues over it and wins, the entire mandate won’t be struck down, just the relevant portions.

Commissioners Altman, Mark Jerrell, Laura Meier, Susan Rodriguez-McDowell and Ella Scarborough voted in favor of the mandate. Commissioners Pat Cotham, George Dunlap, Elaine Powell and Vilma Leake voted no.

“I respect the right of separation of church and state,” Chairman George Dunlap said. “I don’t want us to go down a slippery slope.”

The mandate won’t go into effect right away. The county has to officially provide notice for the amended rule. Once the notice has been issued, it will take effect in 10 days.

Channel 9 has reached out to the Catholic Dioceses of Charlotte. They said they are still going through the details of the mandate and have not released an official statement.

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