FISHERS — A Fishers church held small in-person services Sunday as the debate continued in Indiana over when to begin lifting restrictions on gatherings during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Pastor Dave Sumrall of iTown Church announced Thursday in a Facebook video that the church will resume gathering in-person Sunday for services of 10 people. Sumrall said church leaders consulted with local government leaders and lawyers, who confirmed it is illegal for churches to hold gatherings of more than 10 people.
"So while our local Meijer has a sign posted allowing 1,175 people in the building at once, the church is not allowed to gather," Sumrall said in the video. "We are officially in a situation where your religious freedoms have been removed in the interest of public health."
The state remains under a stay-at-home order until May 1 due to the COVID-19 pandemic with gatherings limited to 10 or fewer people. As of Sunday morning, the Indiana State Department of Health reported 813 confirmed deaths and 88 presumptive deaths from the coronavirus, while 15,012 people have tested positive. More than 203,000 people have died from the virus worldwide.
The stay-at-home order says only essential activities are permitted, which include "activities needed for sustenance, necessities of life, health, education, or employment, and as necessary to take care of others while applying social distancing requirements."
Religious services have been a particularly thorny issue during the coronavirus pandemic. In late March, hundreds of churchgoers gathered in Louisiana in violation of the state's ban on gatherings, while some conservative Christian leaders criticized Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb in early April after he said church services were not essential and urged pastors to find alternatives to in-person Easter services.
While groups of dissenters have held rallies over the past week nationwide protesting stay-at-home orders, a Kaiser Family Foundation poll found that 80% of Americans agree that shelter-in-place measures are necessary in order to protect people.
Sumrall said that while he agrees that "we need to follow the data, we need to listen to our doctors, we need to protect those in our community who are the most vulnerable," he feels rights to worship have been revoked.
Services, which are at capacity after the church required parishioners to reserve a ticket online, will run every hour on the hour from 9 a.m.-9 p.m. Sunday. Sumrall said a "professional hospital cleaning company" will be on-site throughout the day Sunday and will disinfect the building after each service with a "machine that kills all viruses on contact."
Sumrall said the church will offer hand sanitizer and masks to parishioners and will maintain social distancing at all times.
"As you'll see, we are adhering to far stricter guidelines than every other public place where you can still legally gather," Sumrall said.
Sumrall asked that high-risk people and those who feel sick to stay home and watch services online.
iTown Church, which was founded in 2010, hosts more than 4,000 people at its weekend services, according to its website.