Indiana's Attorney General is calling out the St. Joseph Co. Health Dept. for asking the county's faith leaders to move their services online due to COVID-19. This comes as earlier this week St. Joseph County was moved into the more serious "orange" category for COVID-19 by the Indiana State Dept. of Health. Orange means that there is medium to high community spread of the virus occurring. The county also found that a cluster analysis done within the last seven weeks showed five outbreaks associated with church gatherings.
Dr. Mark Fox with the St. Joseph Co. Health Dept. addressed Curtis HIll's comments during the county's COVID-19 briefing on Friday. Fox said he was surprised and disappointed by HIll's reaction and said it was an example of prioritizing politics over public health.
"I think the Attorney General was scolding us for not saying please," Fox said.
Fox said that he had the impression Hill read the letter that the county sent to faith leaders as an order or mandate, which it was not.
County Health Officer Bob Einterz said the purpose of the health department’s letter was to encourage religious institutions to find ways to continue services that would protect their congregations’ spiritual and physical health.
“Spirituality is more than important, it’s essential," he said. "We recognize that and we’re doing everything we can to enable them to function, but function in a way that protects the health of the public.”
Einterz said the health department’s recommendation wasn’t meant to target religious institutions. He said he had also spoken to bar managers, restaurant owners and event venues about COVID-19 compliance.
“We are trying to get the cooperation of all individuals who are involved in social gatherings in stopping this virus,” Einterz said.
Fox said if the cluster analysis data showed that car dealerships, smoothie shops or the mall had an outbreak, then there would be similar conversations with those organizations.
(You can read the statement from the Attorney General's office below.)
Attorney General Curtis Hill today sent a letter to the St. Joseph County Department of Health advising local officials to refrain from threatening religious congregations with negative consequences should the congregations choose to continue meeting in person for worship services amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
The county health department sent a letter Oct. 13 to local religious leaders “to urge all faith communities in St. Joseph County to pivot to on-line or virtual worship formats from now through March 2021.” In the letter, the officials added vaguely that they would be “compelled to respond to any complaints we receive regarding safety concerns identified in any establishments in the county, including churches.”
Such a warning constitutes an effort, “at the very least, to chill the right of individuals to congregate in exercise of their religious freedom,” Attorney General Hill writes in his own letter to St. Joseph County health officials.
“Notwithstanding your best intentions of safeguarding public health,” he writes, “I am concerned that the letter facially targets churches and carries a thinly veiled authoritarian tone. . . . Your decision to write a threatening letter despite a ‘not conclusive’ study is a surprising and disappointing abuse of your power as county health officials. Here in Indiana, we do not govern by decrees from county officials that strip individual liberty in such a manner.”
Both the health department’s letter to faith leaders and Attorney General Hill’s letter to the health department are attached.