PORTSMOUTH — Debate is brewing between local public officials about a church’s wish to use Mound Park.
The church, who wished to not be identified, planned on holding an open-air gathering at the park, but the Portsmouth City Health Department blocked their request out of concerns for the coronavirus.
Yet, Scioto County Commissioner Bryan Davis believes this decision is in direct violation of the First Amendment and the religious freedoms it grants. He brought the issue to attention Wednesday evening on his Facebook page, calling for a reversal in the Health Department’s blocking.
In his conversations with the church’s pastor, Davis learned the church would bring in a preacher from outside the area and open to the general public. They would adhere to social distancing and be masked also.
“They really wanted to do it in their community because of the impact it would have on the individuals near their church,” said Davis.
The church’s request was denied, just as every other group has been since July 8 after complaints were filed for a July 3 event. Belinda Leslie, PCHD human resources and accreditation officer said permits have been put on hold due to groups who were not following their own plans.
Not wearing masks or practicing social distancing, the health department made the call to stop all groups from using Mound Park and other area parks.
With the department’s position, Davis believes state and federal law has been violated and the church is being discriminated against as a religious entity.
“What we’re saying is this decision is improper, was made improperly, and they are not following their own by-laws,” said Davis.
The Ohio Department of Health announced May 29 that “religious facilities, entities and groups, and religious gatherings,” are exempt from public health orders prohibiting gatherings of more than 10 people outside a household and connected property, which Davis says is key in this matter. Leslie, who is filling in for Health Commissioner Chris Smith on military deployment, believed that only applied to the practicing of religion within their church.
“It has absolutely nothing to do with who, or what they want to do,” said Leslie. “We just blanketly stopped issuing permits until we can figure out a way for people to do this and stay safe.”
While groups have not been able to receive permits, Davis said some groups have still met without permission and no citations have been given. PCHD and the Portsmouth Police Department are able to issue citations, but only two sanitarians from the health department are certified to do so. Leslie said this limited staff makes it hard for PCHD to do their job.
“You can’t police what you don’t know,” Leslie said, after hearing about a non-permitted gathering Sunday a day later.
At Thursday’s Scioto County Commissioners meeting, Davis received questions in regards to his role in the church’s wish to use the park. He was asked whether or not he wanted a rally to form.
“I haven’t asked for peaceful civil disobedience,” said Davis during the meeting. “There has been a violation of their First Amendment rights, guaranteed by state and federal statutes.”
Next Wednesday, the health department will reconvene and consider new safety methods to allow groups to use local parks. With Scioto County now under a Level 3 Public Health Emergency, Leslie urges increased caution. 91 cases and 13 hospitalizations have been reported by the Scioto County Health Department as of July 17.
Davis believes the church will continue its push to hold the event despite the emergency as they are still exempt and will follow safety guidelines. Yet, to Leslie, this level of emergency means that only necessary gatherings should take place.
“We cannot allow this to strain our health system,” said Leslie, as the county continues to rise in coronavirus cases and hospitalizations. “We don’t want to hinder anyone from practicing from their rights, but we’re just tasked with making sure they remain safe.”
PCHD can be reached at 740-353-5153 and is located at 605 Washington Street.
Reach Patrick Keck (740)-353-3501 ext. 1931, by email at firstname.lastname@example.org, or on Twitter @pkeckreporter. © 2020 Portsmouth Daily Times, all rights reserved.