Zion Lutheran Church and Holy Rosary Catholic Church in Detroit Lakes will not open their doors for services this Sunday, but after that, all bets are off.

“This Sunday we’ll continue with our online and radio broadcast services,” the Rev. Guy Roberts told the Tribune in a telephone interview Thursday, May 21. The service is broadcast on KDLM Radio in Detroit Lakes.

The Becket law firm, a Washington, D.C., firm that takes on religious freedom cases, said that Catholic and Missouri Synod Lutheran churches in Minnesota would start opening for services on Tuesday, May 26 -- in spite of the Gov. Tim Walz’s COVID-19 protection order, which for now limits church gatherings to 10 people.

Some Missouri Synod Lutheran churches in Minnesota will be resuming limited services on May 31, Roberts said.

“Every congregation has autonomy in our church structure,” he said, “but our region has an advisory role.”

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Zion Lutheran held an outdoor drive-up service May 10 in which people stayed in their vehicles, and has another drive-up service planned for June 7, he said.

Members have been good about continuing to support the church financially during the novel coronavirus pandemic.

“Our giving is relatively stable,” Roberts said. He talked to a half-dozen pastors around the state, and four of the six actually saw an increase in giving, he said.

“But that’s not true of everyone,” he added. With some 300 members, Zion Lutheran is one of the larger congregations in Detroit Lakes. Smaller churches tend to be having more trouble financially, he said. “It’s just like all businesses -- the smaller you are, the harder it is to endure through this.”

Catholic bishops vote to defy order

Holy Rosary will start holding daily mass again at 8:30 a.m. Thursday, May 28, said Monsignor. Timothy McGee. Sunday Mass will resume at 9 and 11 a.m. May 31.

COVID-19 protective protocols will be put in place, including one that limits attendance to one-third of capacity. Since Holy Rosary Church seats 900 people, only 300 will be able to attend, McGee said. He doesn’t believe it will be an issue, since a lot of people are expected to stay away out of concern over the coronavirus.

Parishes are not required to resume services, and Catholics aren’t mandated to attend, the bishops said in a letter.

McGee said he hasn’t really thought about possible enforcement action being taken against the church for opening in defiance of the governor’s order, and said that’s something the bishops would have to address.

Detroit Lakes Police Chief Steven Todd said Friday that he'd like to see the state and the churches work something out, and said his department is taking a wait-and see approach to the situation.

"I was on a web conference with state officials at the Department of Public Safety," Todd said. "The governor is working with representatives of the Lutheran and Catholic churches, and I expect something may come out of that."

Catholic churches will resume public Masses Tuesday, May 26, according to a letter by Minneapolis-St. Paul Archbishop Bernard Hebda.

The letter is posted on the websites of the six Minnesota dioceses, including the Crookston Diocese, which includes Becker County.

It may be the nicest letter of defiance that Walz has ever received: It ends with "we are grateful, Governor, for your leadership in guiding our state through this crisis to the point that we now feel comfortable returning to mass. You can count, moreover, on our continued prayers at those masses."

But Hebda told Walz in the letter that the bishops of Minnesota, who made the decision to reopen, are concerned because "we still are without a clear roadmap, metrics, or definite timeline from your administration about a phased re-opening."

And they are unhappy that the state seems to be moving in the wrong direction as far as church services are concerned.

Churches have voluntarily put a hold on public worship services up until now, Hebda said, but Walz’s most recent executive order specifically includes churches for the first time.

That was an especially bitter pill for the bishops, since Walz’s same order loosens restrictions on other activities and business operations in Minnesota, “many of which cannot be (considered) as essential as the life of faith,” Hebda said.

In short, he said in the May 20 letter, “we have concluded that many of our parishes are ready to safely resume Mass, albeit in a limited way, next week. We feel compelled by pastoral need to provide our people with an opportunity to come together on pentecost, before the Easter season concludes.”

The Crookston Diocese referred a reporter to the Becket law firm, which represents churches in Minnesota. Church leaders plan to reopen safely and still hope to enter into a dialogue with Walz, said Eric Rassbach, an attorney with Becket.

“Large malls like the Mall of America can open back up, bars and restaurants can open outdoors, but there’s a 10-person limit on religious worship -- it doesn’t make sense,” Rassbach said in a telephone interview.

The churches developed a protocol for reopening safely during the COVID-19 pandemic and gave it to the governor on May 7, he said.

Those safety measures include removing or roping off seating to ensure 6 feet between non-family members, rigorous sanitizing between services, making hand sanitizer available, propping open doors, setting up one-way foot traffic, not passing collection plates or similar shared items, not shaking hands, not having choirs, taking measures to avoid crowding in restrooms, and other social-distancing practices, Rassbach said.

“As an ecclesiastical matter, you’re no longer obligated to keep your doors closed,” he said. But the logistics of how each church reopens will be based on what must be done to follow those safety protocols, he added.

“The churches really want to have a dialogue with the governor and figure this out,” Rassbach said. “They aren’t looking for special treatment, they’re just looking for equal treatment.”

In a statement Wednesday, Walz said he understands the toll the pandemic is taking on the spiritual health of Minnesotans, and said he and state health department officials will meet with the Twin Cities Archdiocese.