The Calvary Baptist Church in Sanford, which has had a COVID-19 outbreak infecting 10 people, is not requiring its congregation or school students to wear masks, but, according to its attorney, the church is taking other precautions. Calvary Baptist made headlines after its pastor railed against state safety guidelines. Now that pastor is saying that he and his family have become the target of death threats. Sanford police, however, say they have not received reports of threats.
David Gibbs III is the president and general counsel for the Florida-based National Center for Life and Liberty. It is a nonprofit dedicated to protecting the rights of churches, including the Calvary Baptist Church in Sanford. Gibbs says that his organization is prepared to defend the church should it face or pursue legal action, though nothing is pending.
"Calvary Baptist Church has no desire to go to court. That's not their goal,” says Gibbs. “They just want to be given the freedom to do what they've always done in their community, but do that in a way that is fair and right."
The church has drawn public attention because its pastor, Todd Bell, officiated a wedding in Millinocket that is the source of the state's largest outbreak of COVID-19, now linked to more than 150 cases. After an outbreak erupted at his church, Bell criticized state safety guidelines in his sermons. But Gibbs says Calvary Baptist Church is encouraging physical distancing at services, is keeping indoor crowd-size close to the 50 person-limit and has enhanced cleaning. Masks, however, are optional.
"There are folks that wear masks, but I would say it would be a minority that is wearing a mask,” says Gibbs. “Certainly when they get inside and are socially distanced with their families, most would not be wearing masks."
Gibbs says masks are also not required for students or staff at the church's school, Sanford Christian Academy.
The National Center for Life and Liberty website recommends that churches comply with mask mandates. And Gibbs says he has advised Bell that masks are an encouraged practice.
Even so, he says there is a public misconception that Bell is making dangerous decisions, and, as a result, the pastor, his family and the church have received numerous threats. "The ones that have been probably deemed most credible would probably be about a half dozen."
Gibbs says one threat was sent directly to the Sanford Police Department. But Chief Thomas Connolly characterizes it differently.
"I guess you could say, you know, you could construe it to be a threat,” says Connolly. “But it really was not by definition threatening."
Connolly says there was no mention of violence.
"It just was a rather unusual phone call from an individual who doesn't even live in Maine, who just made a statement on the idea of, let's be safe and let's make sure everything was done correctly, that we looked into,” Connolly says. “And we determined that was probably not a valid threat."
Connolly says the Calvary Baptist Church has not reported any other threats to the Sanford police. He says he has a cordial relationship with Bell that he wants to preserve. But when it comes to masks, he wishes everybody would just wear them. It's really not intrusive, he says, especially considering it could prevent the spread of COVID-19 and save someone's life.