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Orange County to host virtual town hall with religious leaders amid coronavirus pandemic

Religious services are considered essential, Orange County mayors asks leaders to follow CDC guidelines

In this Sunday, April 12, 2020, photo a priest and two volunteers carry willow branches, an Orthodox Palm Sunday tradition, while distributing them to the elderly people during the coronavirus outbreak in Bucharest, Romania. For Orthodox Christians, this is normally a time of reflection, communal mourning and joyful release, of centuries-old ceremonies steeped in symbolism and tradition. But this year, Easter - by far the most significant religious holiday for the world's roughly 300 million Orthodox - has essentially been cancelled. (AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda)
In this Sunday, April 12, 2020, photo a priest and two volunteers carry willow branches, an Orthodox Palm Sunday tradition, while distributing them to the elderly people during the coronavirus outbreak in Bucharest, Romania. For Orthodox Christians, this is normally a time of reflection, communal mourning and joyful release, of centuries-old ceremonies steeped in symbolism and tradition. But this year, Easter - by far the most significant religious holiday for the world's roughly 300 million Orthodox - has essentially been cancelled. (AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda) (Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved)

ORANGE COUNTY, Fla. – Orange County Mayor Jerry Demings will host a virtual town hall with faith leaders next week amid the coronavirus pandemic after receiving a letter from a Christian ministry over his executive order that recommends services remain online or from a distance for now.

Religious services held in churches, synagogues and houses of worship have been considered essential activities under Gov. Ron DeSantis’ original stay-at-home order and continue to be under the phase one of his reopen Florida plan.

The Liberty Counsel wrote a letter to the mayor after he issued his executive order Friday taking issue with asking religious services to be limited to 10 people or fewer. Under the mayor’s executive order, he urges houses of worship to consider hosting services online or by drive-in but does not make that a mandatory requirement.

The Liberty Counsel is a Christian ministry organization which uses litigation, education and policy to advance religious freedom, according to the organization’s website.

The pandemic, which has resulted in more than 263,000 deaths globally, has happened throughout several major religious holidays including Easter, Passover and now Ramadan.

In his executive order, the Orange County mayor also asked religious leaders to encourage their members who are 65 or older and people with underlying medical conditions to stay home due to the risks they face with COVID-19.

“These guidelines are not mandatory but encouraged,” Demings said Wednesday during a news conference.

Even so, the Liberty Counsel took issue with the mayor advising people to stay home instead of attending services in person. The Counsel has been vocal against other state and local leaders in the U.S. amid pandemic restrictions, including filling a lawsuit against Maine Gov. Janet Mills this week.

“Using the arm of government to warn people to not attend houses of worship is far beyond your constitutional authority, let alone the Florida Executive Orders,” the counsel’s letter read.

In response, the mayor said he will host a town hall with community faith leaders on May 14 from 2 to 3 p.m. The meeting will be open to the public.

The mayor responded to the Liberty Counsel Wednesday in a letter shared with News 6.

The executive order, wrote Demings, “only offers guidance to religious entities. It is not my intent to prohibit/restrict or regulate religious institutions or the exercise of religion.”

“I am hopeful that your clients will do all within their power to help prevent and reduce the spread of COVID-19. I have great faith in Orange County’s religious leadership and appreciate you bringing your concerns to my attention," the letter read in part.


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