Indeed, at Covenant's church service on Sunday, May 3, the doors are open to the public.
Assistant Pastor Gabe Blomgren begins with a short clip of REM's "It's the End of the World As We Know It," and a joke about the "tinfoil hats" of former Spokane Valley city council members Mike Munch and Caleb Collier — both in the audience — before putting a PowerPoint slide titled "Covid-19: What have we learned so far."
The crowd boos. He pulls up an image of Washington state Gov. Jay Inslee's phased reopening plan, pointing to the section where religious services are still banned in Washington state. "We're breaking the law right now. Give yourselves a hand," Blomgren says, to a round of whoops and applause. "For us? We do exactly what Pastor Ken says. We obey the Constitution."
Pastor Ken Peters, the pastor who made headlines and triggered Spokane City Council legislation earlier this year due to his monthly Wednesday evening church service protests held outside the local Planned Parenthood. And now, he's officially become the latest pastor in Washington state to defy Inslee's stay-home order.
As Washington and Idaho both sketch out their strategy for reopening the economy, the treatment of churches has become one of the starkest contrasts. In Idaho, churches are one of the first institutions to be allowed to reopen. In Washington, they're one of the last.
Covenant Spokane and Moses Lake WA had actual services yesterday for those who were ready to brave the virus. It was wonderful Submitting to God, while Protected by our Constitution.— Pastor Ken Peters - TCAPP (@PastorKenTCAPP) May 4, 2020
In April, he held a small "Church at Planned Parenthood" demonstration, while gatherings of all kinds were outlawed, though Peters claims it was "technically an online service" with only a couple of people in attendance. And in a video of Covenant's April 26 service, after he announces that he was going on a "national tour" that week to hold church services at Planned Parenthoods across the country, you can hear an audience applaud.
"...and all the illegal church members said..." Peters says at the conclusion of a prayer at the end of the service.
"Amen," the church members in the audience respond.
"I'm more than happy to be a team player and pull back... in order to flatten the curve," Peters tells the Inlander. "But the curve has been flattened. And at some point, I gotta get back to obeying the lord and what he commands us to do in scripture."
It's a risk, he acknowledges. But he says he's put into place safety measures. And with marijuana shops, liquor stores and WalMarts already open, he doesn't think it's enough of a risk to justify sticking to YouTube-only services.
"If I die going to church, then I couldn't think of a better way to die," Peters says. "I'd rather die because I went to church than die because I went to stupid WalMart."
The danger, however, is not just the danger to the individual parishioners — it's to anyone they may come into contact with. The traditional staples of churches — singing, standing close together, hugging, that thing where your pastor tells you to turn and shake hands with your neighbor — are all particularly dangerous activities during a contagious pandemic.
When a Skagit County choir decided to hold practice back in early March, they used hand sanitizer, refraining from handshakes, and tried to keep each other at distance. Yet it became one of the biggest early hotspots of COVID-19, and left multiple members dead.
In Idaho, however, the disease wasn't the only factor public officials were worried about.
But the biggest reason, he says, was that people were suffering — from job loss, from grief, from anxiety and depression.
"What we were trying to do was continue to address those needs. And one of the best way was through their spiritual lives and faiths," Jeppesen says. "For us, it was a priority to allow people to reconnect with their faith and do so in a way that’s safe."
So they opened the doors of churches — stipulating that they follow a list of public health measures.
Back in March, Idaho Pastor Tim Remington — a state representative — had defied Gov. Brad Little back in March by holding a church service against the governor's explicit instructions. After a flurry of media attention, his board ordered him to switch most of his services back to online-only.
"If you want a mask, we do have masks," Remington told his congregation, holding up one that says ‘You can’t fix stupid.’ "Leave a little room between you and your neighbor."
In Washington state, even drive-in services, where parishioners meet in a parking lot and listen to a service on the radio or a podcast together without ever leaving their cars, were illegal until yesterday.
According to Inslee spokesman Mike Faulk, the issue wasn't so much that the disease could spread from one car to the other so much as that the governor wanted to reduce travel in general.
"The idea is to limit movement of people," Faulk writes in an email. "Lots of people going out in their cars likely don’t just make one stop at a religious service. It likely entails more movement and more interactions."
Elsewhere, the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals recently ruled that Kentucky couldn’t legally bar drive-in church services, concluding it had violated the state’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act by substantially burdening “congregants’ sincerely held religious practices.”
But it didn't wade into the trickier question of whether in-person religious gatherings were legal.
Inslee may get a chance to test that question: On April 22, one of Inslee's gubernatorial opponents, Joshua Freed, filed a lawsuit charging that restrictions on in-person religious gatherings violated the First Amendment. A judge quickly swatted down a similar lawsuit in California, however.
On April 27, Peters stands in the bed of a pickup truck in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. He's at rally for the support of Tony Spell, a Louisiana mega-church pastor who'd been charged with repeatedly holding services against the Louisiana governor's orders. More recently, he'd been arrested for aggravated assault after backing his bus toward a protester.
In Spokane, however, Peters has little chance of being arrested or even fined for holding church services in defiance of the governor's stay-home order. Neither the Spokane Police Department nor the Spokane County Sheriff have been enforcing the Governor's stay-home with anything other than stern words.
"The one thing I tell the pastors if they make that move, is we can't insulate you from the lawsuit you might have if one of your parishioners comes down [with the coronavirus]."
When police officers in Bonners Ferry met with him, Campbell recounted in an April sermon, he challenged them to respect his authority, asking them, "Why aren't you recognizing my office that Jesus Christ has given me?”
As the Kootenai Valley Times recounts, the Bonners Ferry Police ultimately ended up praising Campbell for some of the social distancing precautions he was taking, with the police chief concluding that while Campbell was violating the letter of the law of the governor's order, he had decided to put more weight on the "spiritual side of the scale."
During his Easter service, Campbell claimed at an April 17 protest, the police showed up, not to tell him not to have the service but to "protect" him "from the liberals."
And in Spokane County, Knezovich has, in some cases, helped pave the way for services to be held, despite the governor's order. When a church called him asking to hold a drive-in service during Easter, Knezovich says he brought their proposal to Dr. Bob Lutz, Spokane's Regional Health District Health Officer.
Similarly, he says Lutz gave the go-ahead for an outdoor service that was using social distancing measures.
Peters tells the Inlander he would be more than happy to hold his services outside if that was an option.
"My Bible is still on my desk. No one has come in to take my Bible away and say I can't worship," Knezovich says. "Most of the pastors have closed their churches because they were concerned about their parishioners. They did the right thing."
"The Bible says that 'Where two or three are gathered in my name, I am in the midst," Peters says. "It doesn't say where two or three are looking at each other on a screen, you know, Zooming each other.' It's just not the same."
He points to parts of the Bible too, like the admonition that you shouldn't "hide your light under a bushel" and or forsake "the assembling of ourselves together."
But other leaders quote scripture to come to a different conclusion. In a video message this week, Spokane Bishop Thomas Daly, no quivering liberal, quotes a New Testament admonition from St. Peter to stress that people should obey lawful instructions from civil authority, even as they express their view that Eastern Washington should be treated differently.
"While we should not act in a rebellious manner or expect your pastors to break the law, we should all make our beliefs and views known to Gov. Inslee," Daly says.
You could also point to Biblical passages that include the prophet Isaiah calling on God's people to hide in their rooms until God's wrath has passed, to God's command to the prophet Elijah to initially hide from an evil king, to Moses's stay-home order to his people during the plague of the first-born. You could point to passages where Jesus calls on his followers to pray in their closets, rather than be one of those pious hypocrites praying standing in their synagogues to show off their holiness. You could cite the story of Jesus spending 40 days in the desert being tempted by Satan for earthly comforts.
Peters acknowledges all these passages, but sticks by his position.
In a fractured, hyper-partisan time, interpretation of the health data, of scripture, of the Constitution all get read through the lens of politics. The churches who've defied their governor's stay-home order in particular relish in preaching politics from the pulpit.
Peters, Remington and Campbell have all delivered messages at events that have included Spokane Valley Rep. Matt Shea, a leader of the local "Freedom is the Cure" movement.
But right now? He's drawing comparisons to the American Revolution.
"If we don't push back, then we've got government tyranny, which I think is much more dangerous than a virus," Peters says. "We are the United States of America because men of God decided that the king was overreaching and overstepping his bounds."