Megachurch Pastor Brian Gibson announced that he plans to open the doors for worship gatherings at all four of his congregations this Sunday in support of Americans' First Amendment rights, and he is calling on all places of worship nationwide to do the same.
Gibson, who serves as senior pastor of HIS Church, a nondenominational church with two congregations in Amarillo, Texas, and two congregations in Owensboro, Kentucky, made the announcement in an online petition Monday called "Peaceably Gather."
"People in churches, mosques, and synagogues have been told that, regardless of any social distancing or protective practices they implement, they can not gather, with threats of retribution from local governments if they don't keep their doors closed," Gibson said in a news release.
Gibson went on to call it "not just ironic" but "a deliberate slap in the face to religious freedom" that places such as grocery stores could have hundreds of people inside their building at any one time, "but places of worship and people of faith can't be trusted to implement the same safety procedures in their own buildings."
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Gibson added that the Peaceably Gather initiative comes in response to state and local officials and law enforcement across the country that have targeted places worship during the COVID-19 pandemic.
In a video introducing the online petition, Gibson said, "I believe that Jesus is a lamb, but he's also a lion" before calling on pastors around the country to be "lions and stand up and roar" in the face of lockdowns that have prevented churches from gathering since the start of the outbreak.
In some states, worship gatherings are being phased back in as the virus wanes, while in other states, executive orders continue to prevent any such gatherings. One example is in Illinois, where Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritzker announced churches will be barred from holding services with more than 50 people "until there is a vaccine, highly effective treatment, or elimination of any new cases over a sustained period."
In Kentucky, where two of Gibson's congregations are located, churches will be allowed to reopen at reduced capacity on May 20. But Gibson said his Kentucky congregations will be meeting on May17 anyway in a show of defiance.
The Trump administration so far has been generally supportive of churches in such lawsuits. Last week, the Justice Department filed a statement of support for a rural Virginia church in its lawsuit against the state for not allowing services with more than 10 participants.
Late last month, Attorney General William Barr ordered federal prosecutors to "be on the lookout" for unconstitutional state and local orders, saying, "the Constitution is not suspended in times of crisis."
The First Liberty Institute, a legal organization dedicating to defending religious liberty in America, is providing legal representation to Gibson as he rolls out the initiative.