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Faith-based foes of Whitmer's COVID mandates gather at Capitol

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News

Lansing — More than 100 members of faith-based groups and churches gathered on the Capitol lawn Thursday to support efforts to loosen Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's restrictions in Michigan in a rally dubbed "Let MI People Go."

The previously planned gathering by Stand Up Michigan occurred as news broke that state and federal agents had arrest at least 13 individuals who allegedly planned to kidnap Gov. Gretchen Whitmer in part because of her restrictive COVID-19 rules. 

Stand Up Michigan organizers condemned the violence against the governor.

More than 200 members of faith-based groups gathered on the Capitol lawn Thursday, Oct. 8, 2020 to oppose state-issued COVID-19 restrictions. The rally was organized by Stand Up Michigan, a grass roots group that helped collect signatures for the Unlock Michigan petition initiative.

"We may not agree with the governor's policy and decision-making, but there are other ways to influence change and we the people proved that by putting the hammer down when we worked on the signatures for the 1945 law," said Ron Armstrong, co-founder of Stand Up Michigan. 

"The governor and her family are in all of our thoughts and prayers from Stand Up Michigan."

The protest came on the heels of at least three lockdown protests in Lansing that sometimes have skewed toward violence, with heavily armed protesters and messages suggesting "tyrants get the rope." Photos from an April 30 protest show at least two suspects arrested in the kidnapping plot, and other alleged conspirators met at a separate "American Patriot Rally" June 18, according to the federal affidavit

Stand Up Michigan organizers rejected any affiliation with those efforts. The group maintained the restrictions the governor was seeking to keep in place through the Department of Health and Human Services were illegal.

The grassroots movement opposes many of Whitmer's restrictions and helped collect signatures for the Unlock Michigan petition effort, which submitted more than 500,000 signatures to the Secretary of State last week seeking to overturn a 1945 law from which Whitmer pulled her emergency authority. 

The Supreme Court ruled 4-3 Friday that the law was unconstitutional, but Whitmer has since reinstated several executives orders through her health department. 

Thursday's rally was an effort to bring religious and faith-based organizations together, "to realize that they have to be part of the solution," Armstrong said.

"The people need to be the solution," he said. "The government can't always be the fix for the problems. We believe the people in faith-based organizations should be the solution in their community, the solution that would help us all recover quickly."

Among the speakers at Thursday's event were religious leaders from across the state, including the Rev. Stanley "Rusty" Chatfield, House Speaker Lee Chatfield's father and a northern Michigan pastor. Chatfield, R-Levering, also addressed participants alongside Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, R-Clarklake.

In his remarks, Shirkey told the gathering "this is no time to be weak in our commitment to freedom. We need to be strong ... and not be afraid of those who are taking our freedoms away from us," according to MLive.

Few attendants wore masks or socially distanced at the outdoor event. There were several flags for President Donald Trump, though Armstrong said he had encouraged participants to bring American flags instead. 

A group of about 10 counter protesters carrying signs supporting the Black Lives Matter movement and signs to "f--- Trump" at times walked through the crowd.

"We welcome them," Armstrong said. "That's their freedom. It's freedom of speech."

J.D. Livermore Jr., a pastor at a church in Germfask in the Upper Peninsula, said it's "criminal" that pastors aren't allowed to minister to the sick and dying during the pandemic. 

"If they let doctors in, they surely should let pastors in," Livermore said. "We're dealing with the eternal souls of people and not just their physical bodies."

Livermore condemned the alleged plot to kidnap Whitmer, noting Stand Up Michigan took the proper course of action. 

"We disagree and we're standing up for our rights," he said. 

Bonnie Briggs of Kalamazoo said she was concerned about the mindset and attitude that led to shutdown orders that infringed on church services.

Whitmer clarified her orders early on in the pandemic, after several churches filed suit, to exempt houses of worship when they were used for worship services. 

"I felt that the governor and her administration really overstepped their bounds," Briggs said.

Ethan Honeycutt, of Clare, attended with his family to support Stand Up Michigan's efforts, noting that people should be smart about pandemic precautions but there is a limit on the mandates that can be placed on residents. 

"When you have one individual who's trying to delegate the rules to everyone, I think that's wrong," said Honeycutt, who noted he was upset by the governor's attempt to use health department orders after the Supreme Court struck down her own.

"What's really happened in this pandemic, is really it's caused a rift in the state among the people," he said. "What's really important is for us to come together and work together as a team."

eleblanc@detroitnews.com