Religious leaders of the island warn that they will continue giving services within the churches -even when the government provides otherwise in the next executive order issued by Governor Wanda Vázquez Garced as part of the response to slow down cases of COVID-19- and they anticipate that they will take legal action against the state if they insist on the prohibition of ceremonies inside the temples.
The Puerto Rican Reverend William Hernández bishop and president at the international of the more than 6,000 Pentecostal churches in the world, expressed at Primera Hora that the government would be interfering with the right to religious freedom that citizens have if a new closure of the congregations in the country is imposed, as happened to beginning of the pandemic.
“Right now the council leaders and church leaders are in a constant dialogue to know how to proceed if a new ci err for 21 days … I cannot speak for the decision other leaders make. My feeling as bishop is that we must not close down and we must seek legal mechanisms so that this does not happen. Of course, if there is a place where it is proven that the protocol is not being complied with, then they must close it, but they cannot penalize the thousands of churches for what one or two do wrong. You have to focus on the welfare of the people. ”he said.
In Puerto Rico there are 560 Pentecostal churches attended by more than 50,000 parishioners. In general terms, it is estimated that on the island there are between 6,000 to 8,000 churches of various congregations.
Meanwhile, the Reverend Iván De la Torre, superintendent of the Assemblies of God in Puerto Rico and treasurer of the Pentecostal Fraternity of Puerto Rico , said that Pentecostal churches are preparing to "enforce the provisions of the Constitution of Puerto Rico and the United States, so we are not going to close."
"We have determined to wait for the governor to say whether it is true or not. that is going to close and if it is true, we are going to use the right that the United States Constitution and that of Puerto Rico give us that we are an essential service and we have the right to demand that right to freedom of religion and worship, "he said. .
“We would not close the temples… and it is not civil disobedience. We would enforce the Constitution and we would say that the government is the one that is violating our rights to religious freedom ”stated De la Torre, noting that the council was preparing to send a letter to the governor today.  Primera Hora asked him what they would do if there were fines or arrests to parishioners as provided by the executive order that would occur with those who do not follow the laws. “We would seek solutions to go to court as has already happened in the United States. I repeat, this is a constitutional right, ”the Reverend responded.
The religious alluded to a lawsuit filed by Pastor John MacArthur of Grace Community Church against the California government where church gatherings were recently banned.  In the complaint, MacArthur and Grace Community Church accuse state government officials of interfering with their religious freedom and selectively restricting gatherings amid the pandemic. They cited as an example that when protests took place after George Floyd's murder, public health orders were not enforced with those protesters who did not comply with government restrictions.
“California has no such power to determine whether churches They are 'essential', as the federal and state constitutions have already done, ”the lawsuit states, according to media reports from the city of Los Angeles.
Grace Community decided to restart the services in person, while some of its members leaders argued that the government did not have the authority to prevent them from meeting.
In response, government officials responded to the lawsuit and threatened McArthur with fines and even the possibility of arrest if he did not comply with executive orders. Still the parishioners continued to gather. Currently, temples must limit indoor meetings to 100 people or 25% of the capacity of their facilities.
According to the executive order in force in Puerto Rico, “any church, temple, mosque or synagogue that chooses to carry out services In person, they must do so within the hours allowed in the curfew and in compliance with the provisions of the Guidelines for the Reopening of Religious Services, available at the Office of Bases of Faith and Third Sector of the Fortress. The foregoing, as long as they do not exceed the maximum occupancy equivalent to 50% of the capacity established in the current Building Code in Puerto Rico (PR Building Code 2018). ”
All agreed that the churches have assumed a responsible role and they have complied with the health and safety protocols required by the government.
“My position is that the vast majority of the churches have followed all the instructions that the government has established. They are very strict sanitary processes. It is unfair that if the church has complied with all the protocols and it has not been statistically proven that the churches have spread the virus, that the decision is made to close them. People now more than ever require the spiritual help that is offered in the churches. It is the place where they can go to overflow their emotions and seek help. And as I mentioned before, if it is proven that there are infection problems in a church, then it is quarantined but it is not that all are closed. The government has to be prudent, ”Hernández, who is also a prominent leader on the board of directors of the Asociación Hispana Evangélica created in the United States, highlighted.
The new executive order that would take effect on Saturday August 22 – and would be in force for 21 days- will order the closure of churches, will give continuity to the inoperation of gyms and will limit to less than 50% the capacity of clients that will be able to receive businesses, including shopping centers, and will limit the use of dining rooms in restaurants. In addition, face-to-face classes in the country's educational system – as well as in universities – may not begin on September 17, as planned.
This was advanced by the Secretary of Health, Lorenzo González, after leaving a meeting held this morning in Fortaleza with Governor Wanda Vázquez Garced and the health and economic advisory groups created to attend the coronavirus pandemic.
At the moment, COVID-19 has caused the death of 346 people in Puerto Rico and made them sick to over 12,000 people on the island, according to confirmatory evidence. Of these, 633 were reported today, which represents the highest number of infections in a single report in 24 hours.
Today, Juan Carlos Reyes, epidemiologist and member of the advisory group of government doctors on the issue of coronavirus, he said in a radio interview with Radio Isla that "in the case of COVID there is no 'magic bullet', magic wands, but we have seen recent reports of 'contact tracing' that points to outbreaks in some restaurants, in closed places such as malls (shopping centers), places such as churches have been identified there are many open places that a lot of this transmission is still taking place. ”
Arzobispo de San Juan will abide by disposition
Meanwhile, the Archbishop of San Juan, Monsignor Roberto González Nieves acknowledged that the government must urgently address the coronavirus crisis and said that if scientists recommend the closure of the agglomeration places -such as churches- the recommendation must be accepted with “social responsibility.”
“We are aware that in Puerto Rico the numbers of confirmed cases of COVID 19 have been worryingly increasing and that there has been a boom in the deaths associated with the pandemic. Therefore, we recognize the government's urgent need to take the due measures in accordance with our legal and constitutional order to protect lives, guarantee health and to prevent an outbreak. It has been reported in various news media that the new Executive Order would include limiting religious worship as a measure to prevent the spread of the virus. Although I would have preferred to wait for the disclosure of said Order, however, with the information that has come out in the media, I think that if the scientific community understands it appropriate to recommend to the government the closure of places of agglomeration of people, including churches, to to avoid contagion of people, we must accept this recommendation in a spirit of social responsibility, ”he said.
He reiterated that it is necessary to mention that the liturgical activities he has presided over -in and outside the Archdiocese, as well as those he has observed by television and digital platforms- have complied with the highest measures to control exposure to the virus.
“If there is scientific evidence and statistical data that support the theory that the opening of churches has contributed to the increase in cases, the government is called to take appropriate action and make recommendations. However, we have recently witnessed political and proselytizing activities, which contrary to many churches, have not observed the measures imposed by the government and have not been identified as sources of spread of the virus. The times require sacrifices of all the components and not only of the religious and / or commercial sector, "he said.
Finally, he called on citizens to observe the government's measures to prevent COVID 19." It is an act of love to protect the lives of others, as well as his own, "he pointed out.
The Bishop of Arecibo, Monsignor Daniel Fernández Torres, for his part, demanded prudence from the government when evaluating the new measures against COVID -19 and demanded respect for the right to freedom of religion
"An order for the total closure of the churches would undermine the good of souls, in addition to being unnecessary and arbitrary," Fernández Torres expressed in writing.
Noting that it is necessary to wait for what the new Executive Order finally says, the Bishop recalled that religious freedom is a fundamental right that covers every citizen, for which he urged the government to respect it and be reasonable. at the time of imposing new restrictive measures to address an upturn in COVID-19 cases reported on the Island.
“We have established and implemented a protocol with more restrictive measures than what is established in the Government's Guide for the reopening of the churches and we have demonstrated our willingness to collaborate with the government to prevent the spread. This, together with the reality that the Churches have not been sources of infection, makes an order for the total closure of the churches an unreasonable and unjustified measure. This being the case, we invite the government to make a careful, pondered and fair analysis that does not impose measures that are more onerous than necessary, especially when there is a fundamental right protected by our constitution involved. The prelate assured that there are other ways to ensure the health of the fuels and prevent the spread of the virus without having to close the churches, "he said.
Meanwhile, Felipe Lozada Montañez president of the Board of Directors of the Council of Churches of Puerto Rico -which is made up of 8 religious denominations and over 550 congregations- preferred to wait to learn the language used by the Governor in the new executive order, before assuming a formal position as a body.
However, he warned that Vázquez Garced does not have the power to close the churches as it would go against the Constitution of Puerto Rico. On the other hand, it endorsed that there be restrictions regarding the occupation of religious facilities, considering 25% reasonable.
“We understand that it would be violating Article 2, Section 2 of the Constitution, where the Bill of Rights establishes freedom cult. We are willing to continue cooperating but without violating the internal norms of the churches, ”said Lozada.
The eight denominations of the Council of Churches of Puerto Rico that Lozada presides are Disciples of Christ Churches, Baptist Churches, Presbyterian Synod Boriquén, Methodist Churches, United Evangelical Churches of Puerto Rico, Episcopal Churches, Evangelical Lutheran Churches Synod of the Caribbean and the Union Church Churches.