Streaming worship services under Washington’s shelter-in-place order.

On March 23, Governor Jay Inslee issued a “Stay Home, Stay Healthy” proclamation. It requires all residents to stay at home except to conduct or participate in essential activities or for employment in essential business services. The proclamation is clear that multi-person gatherings, including spiritual and faith-based activities, are prohibited.

But what about churches livestreaming services? Can a church livestream a worship service from its sanctuary, or is the pastor required to preach from home? Like this Christianity Today article, we believe a church can continue to livestream from its regular place of worship, subject to caveats and cautions. Here’s why.

Under Governor Inslee’s proclamation, employment in essential services means an essential employee performing work for an essential business in the “Essential Critical Infrastructure Workers” list or carrying out minimum basic operations in a non-essential business. “Minimum basic operations” include inspection of the physical plant, payroll processing, minimum IT to support work from home, etc. It does not include being able to continue to do business.

But “essential critical infrastructure workers” includes “artist and musicians providing services through streaming or technology.”

Although one wouldn’t ordinarily associate that with reading scripture and preaching a sermon, we believe it will be interpreted to encompass the necessary personnel to provide an online church service (so long as that church service complies with distancing and sanitation requirements).

First, the Washington list of essential infrastructure workers is based on California’s list and federal guidelines. In the same location in the list of essential services, California explicitly permits “faith based services that are provided through streaming or other technology.”

Washington may have changed the language because favoring faith-based speech over forms of speech might open the state up to allegations of religious favoritism (though we think such claims would be misplaced). Instead, in an effort to be content-neutral, Washington may have tried to use more inclusive language.

Second, Washington can’t specifically target (in this case exclude) online religious speech. Though beyond the scope of this post, the state’s police power absolutely includes the ability to impose certain content-neutral restrictions on assembly where narrowly tailored to meet a compelling state interest (in this case the health and safety of Washington citizens). In light of the epidemiological evidence for widespread COVID-19 transmission in groups, the state arguably has the right to restrict group worship alongside other (nonreligious) group activities. But if the state singles out religious activity for negative treatment, it violates the free exercise provisions of the First Amendment and Article I, Section 11 of the Washington Constitution. All of that said, we do not believe churches should read the proclamation or this analysis as freedom to have a large worship team in its live service. Neutrally-applicable rules still apply even in essential businesses – distancing and sanitation requirements. And we do not want to see religion’s public witness compromised by negative publicity. But churches that can stream a worship service from an empty sanctuary, a church office, or a pastor’s living room should continue to (responsibly) do so under the Stay Home, Stay Healthy proclamation.

Governor Inslee ended his remarks by saying, “In these uncertain times, I would encourage everyone to turn to that which brings them hope.” We support our faith-based clients in delivering that message of hope.

For questions, contact Nat Taylor or Abby St. Hilaire.