A Statesboro church’s defiance underscores Kemp’s shutdown dilemma

Gov. Brian Kemp publicly agonized about a shutdown of religious services to slow the coronavirus pandemic before opting instead to require social distancing at houses of worship. A Statesboro church flouting his mandate underscores his dilemma.

Georgia State Patrol officers charged five congregants Sunday with reckless conduct after they were accused of defying Kemp's order to keep six feet apart. The church's leaders told Savannah-based TV station WTOC that they shouldn't face restrictions.

“Our faith is just as important as commerce,” Clayton Cowart, president of the church’s parent organization, told the outlet. “Our faith is as important as the law.”

Authorities happened upon the congregation Sunday afternoon, when a Bulloch County sheriff’s deputy noticed about 40 cars in the parking lot of a squat building known as Church of God the Bibleway, according to an incident report obtained by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

A Georgia State Patrol trooper said he saw through a window that the meeting room was “very small” and the worshippers were not abiding by the executive order.

“I told them that they could have church, but they needed to move outside and adhere to the six-feet social distancing rule,” wrote the officer, Sgt. D. Thigpen.

The officer said he soon saw congregants filling water to perform baptisms, shaking hands and hugging a pastor identified as Eli Porter. He warned the preacher that authorities would enforce the mandate and disperse the crowd next week.

A screenshot from a live-stream of the church service.

icon to expand image

A live-stream of Sunday's service showed dozens of congregants clustered in the rectangular-shaped room, singing hymns and embracing one another before the officers intervened.

A few hours later, officers returned to find the church holding another service indoors. An officer wrote that church leaders were “very defiant” and “uncooperative” before he issued the citations to Porter and four others.

Porter could not be reached for comment on Monday.

Kemp has wrestled over whether to impose more restrictions on houses of worship, particularly after outbreaks in some of Georgia's worst hotspots – Albany and Cartersville – were linked to religious gatherings.

"The community is going to be what stops this coronavirus," Kemp told clergy members days before drafting a shelter-in-place order that doesn't prohibit congregations from worshiping but does require people to keep their distances from one another.

Additional guidance from his office strongly urged houses of worship to maintain social distancing or risk further restrictions. If they fail to comply, he said during the private call with more than 800 clergy members, the state could shut them down.

Georgia is not alone in trying to navigate the tricky debate.

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.

As for the Statesboro church, congregants suggested they wouldn’t back down. Cowart said the flock plans to gather under the same roof on Sunday even if it risks further restrictions.

“Our church has made it clear in a proclamation that we would not dismiss any of our services.”