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'It's Time To Resume Our Essential Sacramental Activities': Motion Filed To Suspend Enforcement Against Church Services

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MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) -- A lawsuit arguing that Minnesota churches are being treated unfairly under Gov. Tim Walz's executive orders will get a hearing next week.

The Upper Midwest Law Center, which filed a motion Monday to suspend the enforcement of shutting down worship services, says a hearing on the motion will be held Tuesday in U.S. District Court.

The law firm representing the Minnesota Catholic Conference and the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod in Minnesota released a statement, saying it was hypocrisy to allow retail stores, casinos, and restaurants to have a 50% capacity but to limit churches further.

The Upper Midwest Law Center says the hearing will be held via telephone conference at 1 p.m. A decision from Judge Wilhelmina Wright is expected promptly thereafter.

Church leaders say they gave Walz a detailed plan earlier this month about how they could safely reopen, but that they were not able to engage "in any meaningful way."

On a call Thursday morning, Archbishop Bernard Hebda said they feel reopening is actually necessary for overall health of the faith community.

"Being ordered to stay at home may have been necessary to protect health, but it came at an immense cost. Many have measured those costs economically, physically and mentally, but the cost has been spiritual too. Now that state deems it safe to open retail and nonessential businesses, it's time to resume our essential sacramental activities, with appropriate precautions and adaptations," Hebda said. "We bishops have a responsibility, really a solemn duty, to provide spiritual care and religious services to our faithful."

Hebda said several changes would be made for larger masses. Church capacity would be kept at 33%. People would be spaced in pews, there would be one-way traffic, and no choirs. Hebda did say that he encouraged people over the age 60 or with underlying health conditions to stay home, but he said having services would be an outlet for a community facing financial stress and isolation.

"I hope the governor changes his mind," he said.

RELATED: Catholic, Lutheran Leaders Say They Will Defy Gov. Tim Walz's Order, Reopen May 26

In Minnesota, churches have not been able to hold regular services since the governor issued a stay-at-home order in late March. While Minnesota is slowly starting to reopen, there is no plan yet as to when churches will be able to hold services with large gatherings of people.

On Wednesday, the leaders of Minnesota's Catholic and Missouri Synod Lutheran churches said they plan to defy the governor's order and reopen next week. A law firm representing them made an argument similar to the one put forward by Upper Midwest.

A spokesperson for Walz said that this is a challenging situation for him personally and as a public official. Hebda said he plans to meet with Walz on Thursday.

Health officials in Minnesota argue that the state has not yet hit its peak in the first wave of the pandemic.

"We just continue to stress the value and importance of doing the things we can do to protect the community from the spread," health commissioner Jan Malcolm said.

The latest sectors of the Minnesota economy allowed to reopen are salons and restaurants. Both will be able to reopen with restrictions on June 1. For restaurants, customers will only be allowed to dine outside, and for salons, capacity must be at 25% and workers must wear protective gear.

Meanwhile, COVID-19 continues to spread in Minnesota. So far, more than 17,000 have tested positive for the disease, and nearly 800 people have died.

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