Updated September 8, 2021. A previous version of this article stated the mask requirement applied to churches. The requirement has since been clarified by the Illinois Department of Commerce (page 4, paragraph 2) to exclude churches and other places of worship.
Church leaders across Illinois are considering statements to their congregations about masking ahead of weekend worship services. This comes after Governor J. B. Pritzker issued a new statewide requirement that masks be worn in all indoor public spaces in an attempt to slow the spread of Covid-19. Covid cases in all regions of Illinois have increased through August, driven by the Delta variant. The executive order took effect on Monday, August 30, and while it does not apply to churches, it is encouraged.
The Pritzker administration was sued last year over some orders that affected religious gatherings in particular. And courts across the nation took up the issue of requirements that affected religious institutions more strictly than other organizations. Generally, that is a violation of First Amendment rights.
After fallout following previous requirements that participants in religious services practice social distancing, wear masks, and limit attendance, guidance on the new order states, “The free exercise of religion is exempted from the face covering requirement.”
Some churches are choosing to ask members to mask indoors citing the biblical instruction to love their neighbor as motivation for the prevention of Covid.
In one example, the leadership of First Baptist Church of Waterloo assured the congregation about ongoing cleaning efforts which have become so familiar during the pandemic, but then Associate Pastor Greg Braswell directed the conversation to spiritual concerns.
“We encourage you to continue to be vigilant about your health and make wise decisions for what you will do to protect yourself, while also thinking of your neighbors along the way,” Braswell said. “In all things, let’s continue to show love and care as well as grace to each other as we walk this journey together.”
But Braswell also referenced indirectly one of the hallmarks of Baptist life, autonomy. “Pray, seek the Lord, and allow for these matters of conscience to be determined by what the Lord tells you to do.”
Just as individuals have freedom to act according to personal conscience, local Baptist churches can make their own decisions. Balancing those values with care for the whole congregation and witness to the larger community are the challenge for leaders right now.
Here are a few frequently asked questions about the masking mandate, with answers supplied by the Illinois Baptist State Association (IBSA) Growth Team. They are offered to help clarify the thought process for leaders leaning into this situation. As always churches will make their own decisions.
Who is affected by Governor Pritzker’s executive mandate requiring indoor masking? The new mask mandate requires masks for all people over the age of two who can tolerate a face covering, regardless of Covid vaccination status.
Do churches fall under the executive order? According to the executive order, all public spaces fall under this mandate, however churches and other houses of public worship are excluded from the order.
What does this mean for those attending worship services? For those attending a worship service, face coverings are encouraged, but not required according to the executive order. Illinois Department of Public Health encourages church goers to “take precautions for their congregants and visitors to ensure physical distancing, the use of face coverings, and implementation of other public health measures.”