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story.lead_photo.caption The Rev. Ragan Satterfield (left), associate rector of Christ Episcopal Church in Little Rock, is with the Rev. Kate Alexander, rector, in the church’s sanctuary during its 8 a.m. Eucharist on Sunday, March 22, 2020. The two were among a number of faith leaders over the weekend who livestreamed services to prevent the spread of covid–19. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Francisca Jones)

Several Arkansas faith leaders are continuing to exercise caution in response to a statement by President Donald Trump on Friday that deemed places of worship to be essential, and a call for governors to allow their reopening "right now" during the coronavirus pandemic.

"Today I'm identifying houses of worship -- churches, synagogues and mosques -- as essential places that provide essential services," he said during a White House news conference. "These are places that hold our society together and keep our people united."

Trump's call comes as the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released national guidelines for houses of worship to gather safely.

Arkansas hasn't banned in-person services but has required places of worship to implement safety measures, such as requiring worshippers to wear face coverings.

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Gov. Asa Hutchinson said many churches nevertheless suspended their in-person services as a precaution, and it's up to them to decide when to offer them again.

"They're being cautious until they get a better idea and comfort level in terms of reconvening their worship services," he said. "We're all anxious for that to happen again, but we leave that discretion to the pastors, to the worship leaders, to make those decisions that are good for the congregation."

Bishop Gary Mueller released guidelines for in-person worship to members of the United Methodist Church's Arkansas Conference in the days after Hutchinson's announcement, and has since released a time frame under which churches in the denomination may reopen beginning in June.

Mueller, who is a member of the Governor's Economic Recovery Task Force, in a statement reemphasized earlier instructions to "treat Governor Hutchinson's excellent guidance that he issued on May 4 as a directive."

"The President's statement changes nothing about the guidance I have offered up to this point," Mueller wrote in a statement to the denomination. "We are in the process of reopening, but must do it carefully and in stages so no more lives are lost."

"Like disciples of Jesus Christ everywhere, members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are anxious to come together and worship according to our time-honored traditions," said Area Seventy Michael Beheshti in an email.

Beheshti noted that Arkansas leaders in the denomination have been studying guidelines released Tuesday by the Latter-day Saints' highest governing bodies, the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. That guidance, he said, had "been built with an abundance of caution and suggest[s] a slow and cautious phased approach to resuming in-person meetings -- an approach that will honor all state and local health recommendations."

"Over the next few weeks local church leaders will study these guidelines, and institute plans designed to protect and safeguard not only the health of our members, but of our friends and neighbors in every community where we worship," Beheshti said.

The Rev. Kate Alexander, rector of Christ Episcopal Church in Little Rock, said the congregation she leads has remained "very active as a church community -- helping each other, connecting with each other," and will continue to stream services online.

"The church hasn't stopped, so opening the doors is not a question of restarting the church -- we've been doing church all along, and we're going to proceed with the utmost caution before we have gathered worship inside the church building," Alexander said.

"We ... will only start to gather in person at the church when we have confidence in our ability to do so safely," Alexander said later Friday in an email. "We are not there yet. The call to love one another, to love our neighbors, right now looks like doing whatever we can to stop the spread of [coronavirus]."

Information for this article was contributed by Andy Davis of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

A Section on 05/23/2020

Print Headline: Arkansas faith leaders cautious on reopening

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