Centennial Olivet Baptist Church

Centennial Olivet Baptist Church on West Oak Street in Louisville's California neighborhood. Photo courtesy the church's Facebook page.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- A Louisville pastor said he won't close his church, arguing Gov. Andy Beshear overstepped his bounds when he banned religious services and other mass gatherings during the COVID-19 outbreak.

“We are exercising our right as people of faith to worship,” said the Rev. Wilbur Browning, senior pastor of Centennial Olivet Baptist Church in the California neighborhood. "And according to the First Amendment, last time I read it, the governor can’t intervene to tell us how to worship our God.”

Browning’s church is one of the few in the Louisville area that hasn’t heeded Beshear’s March 19 order prohibiting mass gatherings during the pandemic.

He said that while people with compromised immune systems are encouraged to watch his service on Facebook, 15-20 people come in person every Sunday and “we haven’t been very concerned.”

“I’m a man of God and we believe in God, so coronavirus, for us, has not taken a place of the power of God in our life,” Browning said. “This community needs us. We see ourselves as an essential element for people in this community.”

Elsewhere, other churches are also continuing in-person worship services.

At the Fern Creek Baptist Church, Pastor Linda Barnes Popham is considering an in-person Easter service.

"I have a great respect for governmental authority; however my highest authority is Jesus Christ," she wrote in a statement to WDRB News. "A decision will be sent out to our church family on Friday or Saturday concerning the details of Sunday. We continue to pray earnestly over the scriptures referring to government as decisions are made. My main focus is to point people to Jesus and for people to come to know Him as Lord and Savior."

She says a drive-up Palm Sunday service worked well and was "safer there than we would be in any grocery store parking lot."

Additionally, health department officials are using state authority to close a Bullitt County church that has been holding in-person gatherings. Beshear called out the Maryville Baptist Church twice during weekend news conferences.

"We know that it's a scientific fact that him holding this service today will spread the virus within his congregation, and at Christmas, he's going to have fewer people in his congregation," Beshear said in his Sunday news conference.

But Browning, who has been senior pastor since 1994, said his church has taken precautions, making hand sanitizer available at the front doors and cleaning the church before service.

Asked if he was worried about his parishioners passing along the highly contagious virus as has happened with other churches that have remained open, Browning said he has done his own research and COVID-19 is no more dangerous than the flu.

That claim is false. In Indiana, the state health department said an average of 150 to 160 Hoosiers have died from the flu over the virus' seven-month season during the past five years. In just the last month, Indiana has reported 203 deaths from COVID-19.

Kentucky has reported 65 deaths from the respiratory illness since March 16. There have been 126 flu-related deaths since the first flu case was reported during mid-September 2019, according to the Kentucky Department for Public Health. 

“There are stats from the CDC that tell us how many thousands die from influenza,” Browning said. “Anything is possible, whether it’s coronavirus or some other influenza.”

He said the church has no plans to close its doors.

“We minister in one of the poorest zip codes in the city and people need us more than ever right now,” he said.

The church’s website includes this note to the community:

"Greetings in the name of our Lord, Jesus Christ. As a body of believers, we want to address how we are moving forward in the wake of COVID-19. By now all have heard of the Coronavirus and the number of people it has affected. Let us be reminded whatever God allows is purposeful. In light of this, we have prayerfully decided not to close the church. Please be assured that we are taking necessary precautions to maintain the safety of our members and the community. 

We encourage you to do the things that promote health for you and your family. 

This is not a negative reflection on what others of our sister churches have decided, and we pray for their health and well-being in Christ.

This is also, however, not a time to shrink back, but to move forward, prayerfully and faithfully in the Lord Jesus Christ, who reminded us that tribulations and suffering would surely come. He promised to be with us always, even to the end. 

We pray God's richest blessings on you and your family.

~Rev. Dr. Wilbur S. Browning"

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Digital Reporter

Jason Riley is a criminal justice reporter for WDRB.com. He joined WDRB News in 2013 after 14 years with The Courier-Journal. He graduated from Western Kentucky University. Jason can be reached at 502-585-0823 and jriley@wdrb.com.