Several hundred Christians from across New Hampshire gathered in front of the State House on Saturday to pray, sing, worship and ask Governor Sununu to restore religious liberty they feel was lost in the response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Organized by ReOpenNH, a grass-roots group challenging Governor Sununu’s measures to deal with the crisis, the gathering was a heartfelt combination of a religious service and a political rally and gave New Hampshire Christians an opportunity to express both spiritual and political beliefs. But whether the signs they held had a Biblical appeal or a Constitutional one, the message was the same: reopen New Hampshire churches.
The open-air noontime service began with non-denominational Christian music and included short addresses by Pastor Garrett Lear of Wakefield, Pastor David Berman of Swanzey and Father Christian Tutor of Concord. All three stressed the Biblical basis for freedom of religion outlined in America’s founding documents.
ReopenNH weighed in on its website with a more secular argument, stating in its petition that “the right of religious assembly is of equal or greater importance to the rights associated with retail establishments, which the governor has agreed to begin reopening, and the risk for spread of disease from religious assemblies is no greater than the risk posed by opening retail businesses, because religious institutions can implement similar precautions.”
Governor Sununu has not specifically ordered New Hampshire churches to close. Instead, his Emergency Orders 16, 17 and 40 specified that places of worship could not host more than nine people. In response, churches across the state closed their doors and moved their services online.
While those measures were understandable at the beginning of the pandemic in March, those at the rally declared the governor’s reluctance to reopen New Hampshire churches has become a direct violation of freedoms of religion, worship and assembly. What was originally seen as the governor’s limited policy for short amount of time has become, for many, a broad suspension of Constitutionally protected rights.
Matt Mirabile, rector of Trinity Anglican Church in Rochester, sees the governor’s limit on gatherings, as harmful to the church’s essential role in providing comfort in times of trouble. Noting that Trinity has limited its gatherings to nine or less, Mirabile said, “churches that have historically resisted online engagement have been feverishly learning new technologies. Our church has been streaming services for a few years and, as soon as we learned that our services would have to be limited, quickly transitioned to an online presence. [But] these measures can’t go on forever. Politicians who relegate the reopening of churches to among the least essential services are making a huge mistake.”
The hour-long service concluded with prayer for the governor and state elected officials, as participants slowly divided into small groups for fellowship and prayer. The Governor’s Stay-at-Home 2.0 plan for reopening the state covers many different business and civic institutions across New Hampshire. The day’s rally hoped the governor would include churches in his future plans for the state.