Kemp: ‘I am pleading with you to not attend’ in-person Easter services

200408-Atlanta-Gov. Brian Kemp gives remarks and answers questions during a press conference Wednesday afternoon April 8, 2020 at the Georgia State Capitol. Ben@BenGray.com for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Ben@bengray.com

Credit: Ben@bengray.com

As churches struggle over how to hold services amid the coronavirus crackdown, Gov. Brian Kemp issued an urgent plea on Friday to churches to suspend in-person religious services on Easter to help curb the spread of the disease.

“To all Georgians celebrating Easter this Sunday, I am pleading with you to not attend any services in person,” he said of the holiest time of the year for Christians, adding: “I know this decision is difficult, but we will get through this together.”

The Republican has stopped short of imposing restriction on religious services, opting instead to require social distancing at houses of worship. The clergy members that stream online or hold drive-in services, he said, are "literally saving lives."

His decision will soon be tested. State troopers issued reckless conduct citations to the pastor of a small Statesboro church and four congregants who held worship services in close quarters Sunday despite several warnings. The church's leaders plan to move forward with indoor services on Easter.

The governor has repeatedly urged clergy members to comply with his coronavirus guidelines and praised those who have offered livestreaming options, held services outside or turned parking lots into makeshift drive-in congregations.

Pastor Shell Osbon and his wife Missy, talk to the crowd during the Drive-in church service at the Life Church Smyrna Assembly of God Sunday, April 5, 2020. STEVE SCHAEFER / SPECIAL TO THE AJC

And state officials need no reminding that outbreaks in some of Georgia’s worst hotspots, Albany and Cartersville, were linked to religious gatherings. Even drive-in services, his administration warned aren’t infallible because some congregants aren’t staying in their vehicle.

RELATED: How Atlantans handle Easter, Passover, Ramadan during the coronavirus outbreak

Georgia has plenty of company as officials try to navigate the tricky issue of whether to allow religious services at a time when most gatherings are forbidden.

Florida had a patchwork of restrictions on houses of worship before Gov. Ron DeSantis issued a stay at home order that exempted religious services. More than a dozen governors have authorized similar exemptions that allow Easter worship services to proceed.

At a press conference on Wednesday, Kemp seemed torn over whether he would institute tougher limits on houses of worship during a stretch that includes Easter, the start of Passover and, in two weeks, the beginning of Ramadan.

“If anyone needs to be in church right now, praying for wisdom and guidance, it’s me. But I’m having to do that in other places,” Kemp said.

Pressed on whether he would order the state to shut down congregations that don't comply, a point Kemp raised on a recent private call with more than 800 clergy members, the governor said he was still struggling with that possibility.

“I hope I don’t get in a position that I have to do that. I know it’s something I don’t want to do, and I hope it’s not something that I need to do.”

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