OFF THE RECORD
SPECIAL COVID-19 ALERT
GUIDANCE FOR MARYLAND RELIGIOUS ORGANIZATIONS
Dear Clients and Friends,

As you know by now, on March 30, 2020, Governor Larry Hogan issued a new executive order requiring all persons in Maryland to stay at home in order to reduce the spread of COVID-19. Many churches and religious organizations are looking for guidance about what they can and can’t do under the new order and how it impacts their ability to minister to their congregations and communities during the state of emergency. Some of the most frequent questions we’ve received concern whether religious organizations can continue to gather in small groups to broadcast remote worship services, whether they can conduct charitable and ministry activities to support vulnerable members of their communities, and which staff members are permitted to keep coming to work. We’ve broken down the latest orders and interpretive guidance from the Governor’s office to answer these questions and explain how religious organizations are being impacted. 

To stay up-to-date, you can visit our Important COVID - 19 Updates web page to see important news and resources. If you have other questions about how your organization may be affected, contact one of our attorneys today.

Very Truly Yours,

Davis, Agnor, Rapaport & Skalny
As stated above, Governor Hogan issued Executive Order 20-03-30-01, requiring all persons to stay at home in order to reduce the spread of COVID-19. The Order is an amendment and restatement of several previous Orders prohibiting large gatherings and all non-essential businesses and other establishments. The most important provisions of the Order impacting Maryland religious organizations are as follows:

Gatherings Larger than 10 Persons Prohibited.  Social, community, spiritual, religious, recreational, leisure, and sporting gatherings and events of more than 10 people are prohibited at all locations and venues.

Closure of Non-Essential Businesses.  All non-essential businesses, organizations, establishments, and facilities remain closed to the general public. However, staff and owners may continue to be on-site at non-essential businesses only for the following “Minimal Operations” purposes:

  1. Facilitating remote working by other staff;
  2. Maintaining essential property;
  3. Preventing loss of, or damage to property, including without limitation, preventing spoilage of perishable inventory;
  4. Performing essential administrative functions, including without limitation, picking up main and processing payroll;
  5. Caring for live animals; and
  6. Continuing to sell retail products on a delivery basis.

In addition to the above-described Minimal Operations, the Order does not apply to any non-profit organization or facility providing essential services to low-income persons, including, without limitation, homeless shelters, food banks, and soup kitchens.

Stay-at-Home Order . All persons in Maryland, other than those conducting or participating in “Essential Activities” such as obtaining necessary supplies or services such as groceries, equipment needed to work from home, and laundry; seeking medical or behavioral services or obtaining medication; caring for a family member; traveling to and from an educational institution for receiving meals or instructional materials for distance learning, engaging in limited outdoor activities; or travelling as required by law enforcement, a court order, or to a federal, State or local government building for a necessary purpose.

Penalties . A person who knowingly and willfully violates the Order is guilty of a misdemeanor and may be subject to imprisonment of not more than a year or a fine not exceeding $5,000, or both.

Churches, mosques, synagogues, and other religious organizations are not considered essential businesses under either federal or Maryland guidelines; as a result, they are required to be closed to the general public. In addition, all staff, other than those engaged in limited “Minimal Operations,” should work from home. Staff may include volunteer staff as well as paid employees. Examples of permissible activities would include a secretary picking up the mail, an administrator processing payroll, or a deacon securing the facility. However, those conducting activities such as preparing for religious services or classes or engaging in spiritual counseling should do so from home.

 While a small gathering for the purpose of broadcasting religious services for remote viewing by parishioners is not expressly permitted by the Order, interpretive guidance provided by the Governor’s Office of Legal Counsel has clarified that limited in-person services at religious facilities are permitted, as long as (1) not more than ten persons, including clergy, staff and participants, are present; (2) participants do not interact physically with clergy, staff, or other participants; (3) participants, clergy and staff are at least six feet apart from each other at all times, except for participants who are part of the same household, and comply with all applicable CDC and Maryland Department of Heath guidance regarding social distancing; and (4) there is at least a four hour gap between the end of one in-person service and the beginning of another, and the religious facility is cleaned and disinfected between services in accordance with CDC guidelines. This means that activities such as providing communion to participants or collecting donations in an offering plate are prohibited.

In addition, the term “Minimal Operations,” as if applies to religious facilities, includes, but is not necessarily limited to, facilitating remote worship. If a religious organization chooses to broadcast its services, it must still comply with the limitation restricting gatherings to no more than ten persons. Church must comply with all applicable guidance from the CDC and the Maryland Department of Health regarding social distancing.

Religious facilities may also conduct “drive-in” religious services, where participants gather in their vehicles near the religious facility to participate in services by remote means, as long as (1) participant remain in their vehicles at all times; (2) no vehicle contains more than ten persons; and (3) participants do not interact physically with clergy, staff, or participants in other vehicles. Again, activities such as providing communion to participants in their vehicles or collecting donations in an offering plate are prohibited.

Religious organizations involved in charitable activities that provide essential services to low-income persons, such as a food pantry or soup kitchen, may remain open, and the movement of staff or volunteers traveling to, from, or in connection with their duties is permitted. For other types of charitable or ministry activities, the stay-at-home-order includes an exception for “caring for a family member, friend, pet, or livestock in another household or location, including, without limitation, transporting a family member, friend, pet or livestock animal for essential health and safety activities, and to obtain necessary supplies and services.” This means that religious organizations may carry out ministry activities on behalf of vulnerable members or other vulnerable persons to the extent that these activities are limited to assistance with essential health and safety activities, or delivery of necessary supplies and services. However, charitable or ministry activities are not an exception to the order closing non-essential businesses; the building must remain closed and staff and volunteers are not permitted to work from the building to coordinate or conduct such charitable or ministry activities.