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Whitmer: No penalty for churches that don't follow 50-plus person ban

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News

Lansing — Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has amended her order banning gatherings of more than 50 people by excluding churches from those institutions subject to penalties for violating the order.

The capacity limitations still apply to churches, but the churches will be exempt from the penalty, said Tiffany Brown, a spokeswoman for Whitmer's office.

Shortly after the state confirmed its first two cases of COVID-19 on March 10, Whitmer issued an executive order prohibiting assemblies of more than 250 to stem the spread of coronavirus.

She amended the order earlier this week to limit assemblies to 50 people, with the exception of health care facilities, grocery stores, mass transit, workplaces and the state legislature.

On Friday, the governor clarified the order further, excluding places of religious worship from the list of prohibited gatherings that would be subject to a misdemeanor if found to be in violation.

Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer

Since the initial ban on assemblies of more than 250 people, Catholic dioceses throughout the state and several other denominations have suspended public masses through April to stem the spread of COVID-19.

Speaker Lee Chatfield indicated to The News earlier this week he had concerns about the order limiting assemblies at churches and had conveyed those concerns to Whitmer. In a social media post Friday, he expressed his relief at Whitmer's newest clarification and thanked the governor for the change.

“People have a God-given right to assemble and worship, and that right is secured by both the United States and Michigan Constitution,” said Chatfield, R-Levering. “While I do not think that that right can be taken away by an executive order, I believe that as Christians we also have a duty to love our fellow man and play our role within society. My recommendation is to find ways that you can abide within the order to the best of your ability.”

In a separate letter Friday to the governor, Chatfield thanked Whitmer for changes already made to various COVID-19-related executive orders and, on behalf of House Republicans, listed two dozen other requests for executive orders.

“Many of these reforms would normally be pursued through legislative action and the passage of bills, but the immediate need of a response and constitutional limits on the speed of the Legislature have led us to offer these ideas to you and request their implementation through executive action,” Chatfield wrote.

Chatfield’s requests included accelerated public licensure, allowances for Canadian-licensed physicians to practice in Michigan, extended child care center hours and expanded capacity, and allowances for retail establishments to sell alcohol for take-out.

In education, Chatfield requested expanded cyber charter school enrollment and the allowance of online learning to count toward instruction hours.

The requests also include ones that would allow people to suspend their state-sponsored 401Ks without penalty, various expansions to unemeployment, and the waiver of regulatory fees and outdoor activity permit fees.