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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

After balking at masks, pastor and church staff in North Idaho contract COVID-19

Candlelight Christian Fellowship’s Paul Van Noy, who is both the senior and founding pastor at the church, opens a May morning service at Candlelight Christian Fellowship.  (Libby Kamrowski)

A Coeur d’Alene pastor who opened his large church in early May for in-person services that allowed and even encouraged unmasked congregants to gather has been recovering from COVID-19 at the Kootenai Health intensive care unit.

Paul Van Noy, the senior pastor at Candlelight Christian Fellowship, has spent the past two weeks in the ICU while his wife, Brenda Van Noy, recovered from her own bout with COVID-19 at home. Five other church staff have been infected, said Eric Reade, body ministry coordinator the church.

Van Noy expressed his thanks for the support he had received, in an update posted to the church’s website by his wife.

The church closed its doors for two weeks and underwent deep cleaning before reopening for in-person services Sunday, Reade said.

“We didn’t want, obviously, to be spreading the virus,” he said.

Church staffers don’t know how Van Noy contracted the virus, Reade said.

While masks are mandated in Kootenai County Van Noy has expressed doubts about the efficacy of mask-wearing to help stop the spread of the coronavirus. He is known to bring his political views to the pulpit.

In Facebook posts, he wrote that face coverings wouldn’t be required at the church of about 1,200 members.

Van Noy said in a July 17 post that he didn’t believe masks would prevent spread, while also claiming the church could ignore the order because it isn’t a public place. He reiterated that the virus is a threat.

“It is true that COVID-19 cases are in escalation here in our community and that the virus is real,” Van Noy wrote. “However, the panic to ‘stop the world’ or mandate public compliance … is causing untold problems and pushback that will not be helpful.”

Van Noy went on to say that masks can be worn during services but are not required.

“We need to keep our doors open, activities occurring and fellowship active,” he wrote. “Moreover, closing down churches, businesses, and services is certainly not the answers to the concerns.”

Candlelight’s stance on mask-wearing and social-distancing has not changed since Van Noys’ diagnosis.

When asked whether masks are mandated to attend services in compliance with state law, Reade said, “No.”

“The position is, if you feel comfortable wearing a mask, you can. If you’re not comfortable wearing a mask, you don’t have to,” Reade said. “Nobody is going to be criticized for whatever decision they make.”

Reade said the church’s approach to the virus has been balanced, with a live-streamed service like they have done for years and support for congregants’ First Amendment right to gather and worship.

“We all have different opinions and approaches about things,” Reade said. “It’s being able to balance that and being loving and kind and respectful in all aspects.”

Church members’ responses to the infections have varied, with many continuing to gather unmasked.

Last week, church members held a vigil for Van Noy outside of Kootenai Health, the Coeur d’Alene Press reported. Attendees were pictured gathering in close proximity without masks. Reade said the vigil was not organized by the church.

Brenda Van Noy has been active on social media throughout her illness, posting to her public Facebook a mixture of heath updates and conspiracy theories, many of which have been flagged by Facebook as untrue. These posts include, misinterpretations of Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data, references to the #Savethechildren movement, which has been linked to QAnon, and the assertion that “fact checkers didn’t exist until the truth started to get out.”

She also acknowledged she had underestimated the virus prior to contracting it.

“I haven’t taken this Covid seriously enough. I’m humbled. I have Covid and some of my friends have Covid now but more seriously my husband is in critical care in ICU with Covid and it is serious. Please take this serious. Pray for healing. Love each other. Pray for those who have lost loved ones because of this EVIL virus!” she wrote Sept. 4.

Brenda Van Noy did not respond to requests for comment.

During Paul Van Noy’s absence from the pulpit, the church plans to bring in guest speakers, including Charlie Kirk, a controversial evangelist, Trump supporter and founder and president of Turning Point USA, a nonprofit aimed at conservative youth activists that has been criticized for spreading misinformation.

Kirk is scheduled to speak with Rob McCoy, the Ventura, California, pastor who was recently fined for holding indoor church services against COVID-19 restrictions.

The two are set to speak at an in-person church service on Sept. 27.