The following information is the text that our church ran in three ads in the Star-Gazette. It gives an overview of the history of our church and our church’s response to the pandemic as well as information regarding the our lawsuit against Chemung County.
Lighthouse Baptist Church, with its friendly, family atmosphere, is an independent Baptist church which is committed to Biblical truth and is compassionate about our community and the world.
Our church was founded in 1991 by our pastor, Richard Hack. The church began as Independent Baptist Church, and we first held services in a closed-down elementary school building on the south side of Elmira, New York.
Over the years, the church has met in three different locations in order to provide adequate space for our members. After merging with Calvary Baptist Church, we are currently located in the village of Horseheads.
We seek to serve the Lord Jesus Christ, and we desire to obey His Word. One aspect of the life we live is that we care about the health and well-being of our attendees as well as those in our community.
Contrary to some news reports, Lighthouse Baptist Church—in order to protect and serve each other—implemented safety measures from the very beginning of this pandemic.
Hand sanitizer, disinfectant wipes, and masks were available at each of our public services. Steps were taken by church leadership to limit the spread of the virus, e.g., our hand-shaking time was eliminated, and the passing of offering plates had been suspended. Sunday School classes were temporarily postponed, as well as various outreach ministries.
Pastor Hack, in concerned response to sickness in our church, had already made the decision to go to only livestream services before anyone from the county government had contacted our church. This was yet another pro-active decision made to protect our people and our community.
The overwhelming majority of our attendees were tested or self-quarantined voluntarily in order to protect our church and our community. Some attendees self-quarantined even if they were unsure that they had been exposed to the virus.
To our knowledge, there were no church families who did not quarantine themselves if they were sick. There have been many in our congregation who have been tested for COVID-19 with both positive and negative results.
While we believe that God loves and cares about us and we are a congregation of people of faith, we are not ignorant of—nor do we downplay—wise and prudent practices regarding sensible health measures.
We have served this community for nearly thirty years, and we have counted it a privilege and honor to be a part of Horseheads, Elmira, and the Twin Tiers. Many of us have raised our families here, and we call it home. It is astounding to us that so many negative assumptions would be made about our church leadership and congregation simply because of our caution in dealing with governmental agencies.
Lighthouse Baptist Church has been and is willing to implement any reasonable effort to protect our attendees and community, but we will not provide our attendees’ personal information to the county illegally. Even though we are a religious organization, we believe we still have a responsibility to protect our attendees’ constitutional rights.
While we have received an outpouring of positive support from many in our community, there have also been multiple calls, texts, comments, and messages from people who are angry because they are misinformed. Many wrong assumptions have been made about our church and our response to the pandemic.
Thank you for taking the time to read this—our goal is simply to provide information and clarity regarding our current situation.
Many people have asked why we are running ads in the newspaper. That is a fair question. We want to be able to share the truth regarding our church’s response to the pandemic.
The Chemung County Health Department (CCHD) posted Notices of Closure on our building even before a cluster was confirmed. At the time of the posting by Mr. Pete Buzzetti, Chemung County Public Health Director, we had only two (2) confirmed cases. CCHD never came to our church, never interviewed our leadership, never inspected or tested our premises, never spoke to anyone about our safety plan, and never shared with us the results of any investigating it did conduct—if it conducted one at all.
The testing site at the fairgrounds on September 9, 2020, was open both to Lighthouse Baptist Church (LBC) attendees and to the general public. We encouraged our members who wanted to be tested to take advantage of the opportunity, and we offered free transportation to the testing site for anyone who needed it.
However, those who were tested were never asked if they were LBC attendees. For example, we were informed by a neighbor on our street that they had taken the test at the fairgrounds. This individual does not attend our church. According to a CCHD press release, forty (40) people were tested. Nineteen (19) positive tests were entirely attributed to LBC despite a lack of evidence that these individuals actually attended LBC, much less that they contracted COVID-19 there.
Because CCHD has not disclosed this information, we are unsure of the exact number of LBC attendees who have tested. From the beginning of this pandemic, our church leadership has encouraged anyone who shows symptoms of COVID-19 to self-quarantine, and we have not discouraged them in any way from being tested or cooperating with the CCHD.
As a condition of our reopening, the CCHD has required that we provide daily logs to them of both our attendees’ personal information and our cleaning schedule even on days when no one is in the building. These requirements go well beyond the NYS Interim Guidance for Religious Services.
We continue to be willing to work with the CCHD within legal guidelines. While LBC has been and is willing to implement any reasonable and practical effort to protect our attendees and our community, we will not provide our attendees’ personal information to the county government on a daily basis.
We have a responsibility to protect the constitutional and privacy rights of our attendees, and, in the absence of another outbreak requiring contact tracing, we will not agree to provide the daily logs of the names, addresses, telephone numbers, and temperature tracking of those who enter our building, any more than other businesses or homeowners would provide daily logs of their visitors to the government. This requirement is found nowhere in New York law.
There have been multiple claims from multiple sources against our church that are not backed by any information that has been released to the public. We know that CCHD did not conduct an inspection of LBC’s premises or interview LBC’s leadership in the aftermath of the COVID-19 cluster nor has CCHD explained why it believes these cases were contracted at the church or what it thinks LBC could or should have done differently to prevent them.
Because they have shown themselves to be unfriendly, demeaning, and defamatory toward LBC and have misrepresented known and knowable facts about LBC on multiple occasions, we are being very careful in our dealings with CCHD and county leadership. We do not and will not accept the county’s “judge, jury, and executioner” approach that has left our church closed for nearly three months.
We do not deny that our community continues to struggle with the virus, and we are saddened to hear of people who are battling it. Our thoughts and prayers are with them as well as those who have lost loved ones in recent weeks and months. We appreciate the community’s support during this difficult time, and we assure any individuals concerned that we are doing all that we can to help our attendees and our community. May God be with each and every one of you.
The following statement was released by our church on Friday, December 4, 2020.
Lighthouse Baptist Church (“LBC”) is pleased to announce the successful resolution of its Federal Court lawsuit against Chemung County. LBC commenced this lawsuit to protect its constitutional right to the Free Exercise of Religion under the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. In the lawsuit, LBC contended that Chemung County sought to infringe that right by refusing to allow LBC to hold worship services unless or until it complied with punitive and unreasonable demands of Chemung County Health Department that went far beyond the rules and guidance established by Governor Cuomo and the New York State Department of Health.
The action ended today with the filing of a stipulated injunction issued by Judge Elizabeth Wolford of the Federal District Court for the Western District of New York. The injunction clearly and unequivocally prohibits Chemung County from seeking to impose restrictions and conditions on LBC’s reopening that are found nowhere in New York law. In particular, the injunction prohibits the county from seeking to enforce any of the restrictions or conditions set forth in County Attorney Hyder Hussain’s letter to LBC’s attorney dated September 24, 2020, on which the action was based.
LBC was represented in the lawsuit by attorneys R. Anthony Rupp III and Chad A. Davenport of Buffalo. “This was a complete win for Lighthouse Baptist Church,” said Rupp. “Although the county only belatedly recognized that its unreasonable and unnecessary restrictions violated the constitution and infringed the rights of [Lighthouse] and its congregants to practice their faith, it suddenly came around when faced the prospect of appearing before a Federal judge to explain itself. We are very pleased with this result, which reaffirms that the constitution continues to apply even during a national health emergency, even in Chemung County.”
LBC’s founder, Pastor Richard Hack, had this to say about the resolution of the lawsuit: “This has been a very trying time for our church. Lighthouse said all along that we would comply with New York State guidelines, but the county insisted that we go well above and beyond those guidelines as a condition of reopening. When we tried to stand up for our rights, the county’s response was to smear our church and its congregants in the media. With the entry of the injunction by Judge Wolford, Lighthouse has taken a stand for religious freedom, and we are very gratified by this extremely favorable result.”
Mr. Hussain stated in his press release on December 4, 2020, that the lawsuit had been “amicably resolved.” If “amicably resolved” means that the county completely capitulated to the church’s demands, then we would agree with that statement. Additionally, he stated that we were permitted to resume operations as long as we comply with “Federal, State, and Local laws and regulations . . .” We have sought to follow these laws as long as they are laws and not punitive measures passed by a County Executive and Health Department operating outside of NYS law.
As Mr. Rupp stated, “This is a 100% win for the church. The reason we settled with the county is they gave us 100% of what we asked for in the complaint. The entire injunction prevents the county from continuing to act in an unconstitutional fashion. It did not in any way chastise LBC nor did it suggest that LBC had done anything wrong. It did not require the church to do anything that the county had demanded us to do.”
Mr. Moss has recently stated that if the church does not follow the state guidelines that we will find ourselves under the same restrictions. What Mr. Moss seems to fail to realize is that the restrictions the county imposed upon our church were illegal and outside of his purview to enforce. Thus, it appears that he and the county are willing to go outside the law again.
The whole crux of the issue is that the county demanded unconstitutional, illegal, and punitive actions in order to for us to reopen the church. These demands are not found in anywhere in NYS law.
There are other legal issues that are going to be pursued involving the defamatory comments of the County Executive (Chris Moss) and other misbehavior by the County Executive and other county functionaries. Freedom of Information Letters have been filed, in part, to obtain the reasons why the county has blamed our church for any outbreak or deaths. At the time of this submission, they have not responded, and we are planning to take legal action in order to gain that information.
We are asking Mr. Moss to provide evidence regarding several statements that he has given as facts. He has stated that we allowed someone whom we knew had COVID-19 to sing in the choir. This is just one example of blatantly false statements he has made against our church.
We are hoping that the additional lawsuits will remind our local government of their responsibility to deal fairly and legally with those within its jurisdiction.
These ads serve to bring to light some of the unjust and illegal actions that have been taken by our county government.