Walz administration, churches don't back away from potential clash over reopening

Gov. Tim Walz's administration didn't bend Thursday after Catholic churches and some Lutheran churches said they would defy his orders and reopen next week.

State health officials gave no indication that they were planning to change their rules, which prohibit in-person gatherings of 10 or more people. Such gatherings present a danger because they increase the chance for spreading the coronavirus, they said.

The Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis plans to resume Mass on May 26 with sanitation and social distancing measures in place. The Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod will restart services on May 31 with similar measures.

"As we’ve seen other openings and plans for other openings in the state, it makes us feel much more comfortable with what we’re doing," Archbishop Bernard Hebda told reporters at a Thursday afternoon news conference. "We see a parallel there and we certainly see that we need to be treated equally."

Walz allowed malls and other retailers to open Monday at 50 percent capacity. This week, he announced that restaurants could open their outdoor patios and salons could restart their operations in a limited capacity on June 1.

Hebda was scheduled to meet with Walz late Thursday afternoon. It wasn't immediately announced if there had been a compromise. State health officials said in-person services would be dangerous for people with underlying health conditions who would wan to attend.

"We just continue to stress the value and the importance of doing the things we can do to protect the community from spread, and we appreciate that comes at great cost and great disappointment," said Jan Malcolm, the state's health commissioner.

Meanwhile, a separate group that's suing Walz over the church restrictions said a federal judge in St. Paul had scheduled a May 26 hearing on the group's request for a temporary restraining order.

Attorney General Keith Ellison, who blocked a Stearns County bar owner from reopening his business this week, has given no indication what he plans to do if the churches reopen. A spokesman did not comment when asked Wednesday evening.

The Archdiocese and the Lutheran churches are represented by Becket Law, a Washington-based law firm that specializes in religious freedom cases. 

Eric Rassbach, a vice president and senior counsel for Becket, said the churches were not ruling out a lawsuit against the governor.

"I certainly hope that no one will be sending police into churches to arrest the worshippers," Rassbach said on a conference call with reporters.

Hebda, the Minnesota archbishop, said each church would have designated doors for entering and exiting, would space people out in church pews, and would mark lines on the floor as a pathway during communion. Some do not plan to open immediately because they aren't ready, he said.

Hebda and Rev. Lucas Woodford of the LCMS-Minnesota South District said they had sent a letter to Walz's office laying out their safety procedures in early May. 

"Because we cannot abide by an indefinite suspension of in-person worship, we’ve chosen to move forward in returning to worship," Woodford said. "We do so humbly and respectfully, not wishing any ill will upon our governor or state leaders."