Andrew Murch, lead pastor of Northwest Gospel Church, had previously offered the governor a proposal for churches to receive similar guidelines as restaurants and movie theaters
VANCOUVER — Earlier this week, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee announced that houses of worship can begin holding services again, with restrictions, as part of his four-phased plan to reopen the state.
The governor’s new guidelines will allow up to 100 people, excluding staff members, to meet outdoors at the site of a religious organization in the state of Washington. In Phase 2, which Clark County has not been approved to enter, churches will be allowed to hold services inside with a maximum attendance of 25 percent of the building’s capacity, or 50 people, whichever is less. Also in Phase 2, religious groups would be allowed to provide in-home services for as many as five people.
In his Wednesday news briefing, Inslee said that he relaxed his restrictions on religious gatherings because “religion is constitutionally protected.’’
Inslee’s announcement received mixed reactions from the religious community.
“Washington state officially has the most restrictive faith gathering guidelines in the nation,’’ said Andrew Murch, lead pastor of Vancouver’s Northwest Gospel Church, of Inslee’s relaxed restrictions. “After California updated theirs on Monday, I was hoping we’d see at least what they were given, but ours are actually more restrictive, by a fair measure. Not only is the number of people in Phase 2 half what they are in California’s current phase, but there are a number of other regulations — including all people (including staff) being masked before, during, and after the gatherings, that make meeting difficult.’’
Murch recently made a public plea to Inslee, essentially asking the governor to treat religious gatherings the same as restaurants and movie theaters.
Murch and his fellow church leaders created a website where the full proposal could be viewed and fellow faith leaders and members could show their support for the proposal. As of Friday (May 29), the website had 5,189 supporters, many of whom reside right here in Clark County. That website can be found at https://www.wafaithgatherings.com/.
Murch offered Inslee a great level of detail in his proposal. Obviously, the governor’s actions this week fell considerably short of what the Vancouver pastor had hoped for.
“The only thing specifically in line with what I proposed was the percentage in Phase 2,’’ Murch said. “Basically, Inslee moved Phase 3 into Phase 2, and said ‘25 percent,’ which is what our proposal had recommended. The issue with that, though, is that Inslee added: ‘or 50 people, whichever is less,’ which really limits churches larger than that.’’
Murch offered some insight into what may have contributed to the governor’s decision to the modest changes in his restrictions on religious gatherings.
“I am aware of multiple behind the scenes things that may have influenced his decision,’’ Murch said. “A county health official from eastern Washington actually reached out to us a couple of weeks ago and said he had spoken to Inslee personally about my letter. He said the governor’s response was, ‘write up a proposal for me to look at.’ Combined with this, I know the Roman Catholic diocese from Washington state sent him a letter May 22 asking for him to alter the guidelines. I don’t know what role any of that played.
“I think the national backlash on states with really restrictive guidelines for faith gatherings also may have played a role,’’ Murch added. “The week Inslee was originally slated to announce new faith gathering guidelines was the same week (California Governor) Gavin Newsom received a letter from the DOJ (Department of Justice)warning him that inequitable standards toward faith gatherings were not constitutional.’’