Anchorage has not moved to stop churches from meeting in defiance of virus order

A white church with a tall steeple and mirrored glass on the front surrounded by several trees
Anchorage Baptist Temple on Aug. 12, 2020 (Lex Treinen/Alaska Public Media)

Anchorage officials say they haven’t taken action against churches that are meeting for in-person services in defiance of a city health mandate designed to curb the spread of the coronavirus. 

Last week, city officials say they contacted Anchorage Baptist Temple, one of the largest churches in Anchorage, after the church’s Facebook video showed that more than 15 people were meeting inside. An Anchorage emergency order prohibits gatherings of more than 15 people indoors for religious services. But the city never issued a formal citation, according to officials. 

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The church held in-person services this Sunday and video shows that again the church was above allowable capacity. The mayor’s spokesperson Carolyn Hall says the city isn’t actively enforcing the order because it hasn’t received a formal complaint from the public.

“It goes for any emergency order and any potential code violation. The way that the municipality approaches alleged violations is that we are complaints-driven. And it is very much a complaint-driven process,”’ she said. 

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Hall says the city recently issued stop-work orders to two restaurants after receiving complaints. She says the city’s number one priority is health and safety but that it also relies on a formal complaint process. 

Churches and other social gatherings have “significantly contributed to the rise in cases” in Alaska, according to a weekly summary of COVID-19 by the Department of Health and Social Services. Anchorage’s health department has named one church where there was significant exposure in July. 

Anchorage Baptist Temple declined to comment for this story. In sermons, pastor Ron Hoffman has cited scriptural reasons for holding in-person services, despite the ban by civil authorities. 

“We are not to go out with pitchforks and violently take over our government. No, we’re not. We’re simply to do one thing: Church,” he said in a sermon streamed on Facebook on Aug. 9. 

The church also has been live streaming services and holding parking lot services where congregants can tune into sermons on their car radios. 

Jack Frost, the chief code enforcement officer for the city, said in an interview on Monday that the city has just about a half a dozen code enforcement officers and that the department doesn’t have time to monitor establishments for compliance.