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Arkansas Baptist churches decry ‘unfair and damaging’ report

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (BP) — Two prominent Southern Baptist churches were unfairly portrayed as contributing to the spread of COVID-19 in a recent report issued by the Arkansas Department of Health, according to Arkansas Baptist State Convention Executive Director J.D. “Sonny” Tucker.

Tucker expressed his concerns in an email to Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson and other state officials.

The report, released shortly after a June 26 briefing by the Arkansas Department of Health, listed both Cross Church, a multi-site church in northwest Arkansas, and Central Baptist Church in Jonesboro, Ark., among 44 churches from multiple denominations.

The briefing included a map showing locations of churches but did not name them. According to the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, the list contained “errors and omissions,” and most of the 44 churches had been linked to very few cases of COVID-19.

Tucker said the way the data was released, and subsequently reported, overstated the impact of the churches’ in-person services on the pandemic and wrongly suggested the churches were not following safety guidelines. Tucker said both Cross Church and Central Baptist had followed guidelines, and told the Democrat-Gazette neither church should have been “singled out.”

Brian Dunaway, spokesperson for Cross Church, told the Democrat-Gazette the church is aware of only one person with COVID-19 who had attended a service. Before the pandemic, the church averaged about 9,000 in weekly attendance at its campuses.

Archie Mason, pastor of 8,000-member Central Baptist Church, told the Democrat-Gazette that members of one family, who attended a service approximately five weeks ago, had tested positive for COVID-19.

Tucker, who is a part of Hutchinson’s economic recovery task force, communicated his disappointment and concerns via an email to Hutchinson and several other state officials, as well as two other members of the task force. In the email, he wrote the state health department had targeted Cross Church and Central Baptist “in a questionable fashion,” prompting “public embarrassment” and raising “the ire of 1,563 Arkansas Baptist Convention churches with (5,500) staff members and (500,000) church members.”

In a release, Tucker said the emails expressed his “opinion as a member of the task force and represented the interests of Arkansas Baptist churches across the state,” adding:

“My emails stated my opinion that publicly listing churches in that fashion, and possibly listing small businesses in the future, is detrimental to our economic recovery. These emails also expressed the strong position of many leaders within the Arkansas Baptist State Convention — singling out churches is unfair and damaging, especially the two Arkansas Baptist State Convention affiliated churches on the list.”

Hutchinson, in turn, reached out to several churches, including Mason at Central Baptist, and publicly stated he did not intend for the list, which was disclosed in response to Freedom of Information requests, to become public. Hutchinson told the Democrat-Gazette he was unhappy with how the information had been reported.

“I don’t like the fact that the media presented the information like there was a cluster in a particular church or that they had been careless,” Hutchinson told the newspaper. “That is not the case.”

Tucker expressed appreciation of Arkansas Baptists for “Hutchinson’s stance on the value of the role of churches in Arkansas.”

“Our churches are thankful for the protection the governor has provided churches, and most have been diligent to meet or exceed the guidelines to protect those who visit our churches,” he said. “As Arkansas Baptists, we pledge to pray for Gov. Hutchinson as he navigates our state through these complex issues.”