Throughout Southern California and across the United States, churches have largely been shuttered for “normal” services over the course of the past couple of months as a result of directives issued by state and local governments. Some churches are ignoring these directives and are conducting church services with full pews. In some areas, churches will slowly be moving towards modified openings that will allow limited services with smaller numbers of people. No matter what course a particular church or other religious or spiritual facility is on when it comes to letting people in the doors, the powers that be within these organizations need to have a clear understanding of their legal obligation to parishioners during the COVID-19 pandemic.

New Announcement From the President of the United States

On Friday, May 22, 2020, the President of the United States announced that he considers churches to be “essential services.” He “ordered” governors across the country to fully open up churches immediately. He further stated that if governors failed to comply with his directive, he would override them and “open” churches “himself.”

The move of the President has brought the opening of churches front and center in public discussion. As a consequence, churches in Southern California and elsewhere need to focus on their own legal liability to their parishioners during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Churches Have Been Hotspots for COVID-19

Churches have been hotspots for the spread of COVID-19, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The nature of churches makes them prime spots for the spread of many different types of infectious diseases. COVID-19 is deemed to be a particularly virulent infection that can spread easily from one person to another.

Some of the primary reasons churches initially became hotspots for the spread of COVID-19 include:

  • The close proximity people sit to one another 
  • The passing of collection baskets
  • The distribution of communion
  • Larger spaces that are difficult to disinfect
  • The use of prayer books and hymnals
  • Expense involved with proper infectious disease decontamination

Legal Duty of Churches in Regard to the Safety of Their Parishioners

Many individuals operate under a misperception that churches are granted greater latitude than a business when it comes to a legal duty to the safety of parishioners. The reality is that a church has the same type of legal duty in regard to the safety and welfare of parishioners that any other type of business must maintain.

The legal duty of a church when it comes to the safety and welfare of its parishioners is called “premises liability.” Under the doctrine of premises liability, a church must keep its building and other premises, exterior and interior, in a reasonably safe condition. A church must take all reasonable steps a similarly situated religious institution would pursue to keep people on its premises safe and sound. 

The doctrine of premises liability extends to what a church needs to do to protect parishioners and others against COVID-19 infection. At this time, what a church needs to do to protect parishioners and others from COVID-19 is in something of a state of development. With that said, there are some strategies that are becoming clear when it comes to the legal duty of a church to protect parishioners and others during the COVID-19 pandemic. Understanding this duty is becoming extremely important as the opening of churches in Southern California is becoming an important and challenging issue. 

Specific Strategies by Churches to Protect Parishioners

As was noted previously, the matter of legal and other issues associated with the reopening of churches in Southern California and elsewhere are being discussed and debated. Nonetheless, there are some specific strategies that churches need to implement in order to satisfy their legal responsibilities to their parishioners and others.

First, churches need to develop meaningful, comprehensive two-prong strategies to protect people against COVID-19 contamination in church facilities. The first prong involves developing a sound strategy to reasonably protect against COVID-19 contamination in a church. Diligence in accomplishing this objective reasonably can be said to necessitate the involvement of a professional COVID-19 cleaning and disinfection company

The second prong demands a rapid remediation response if coronavirus contamination is suspected in a church. For example, if it turns out that someone who attended a church service proved to be infected with COVID-19, a prompt response to undertake coronavirus cleaning and disinfection needs to occur. Ideally, this type of vital COVID-19 cleaning and disinfection also is undertaken by an experienced, reputable coronavirus contamination remediation company. 

Other strategies to protect parishioners include maintaining social distancing practices and the wearing of masks. Collection baskets should not be passed among the congregation. Greetings that include handshakes should not occur. Limitations should be placed on the number of people who will be permitted to be inside a church for services at any one time. 

What is outlined here are all highly likely to be deemed reasonable steps to keep parishioners and others safe. Thus, if a church doesn’t follow these strategies, an argument very likely can be made that a church is not satisfying its legal obligation to parishioners and others during the COVID-19 pandemic.