The American Family Association (AFA), a Christian nationalist group based in Tupelo, Miss., yesterday issued a triumphalistic email asserting that churches all over America have decided to ignore state and local public health orders and reopen for in-person services, despite the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

As is often the case with an AFA email blast, the truth is more nuanced. After the pandemic was declared, governors and other public officials began issuing orders requiring people to stay at home as much as possible and banning all large gatherings, religious and secular.

The vast majority of America’s religious leaders followed the rules. They either suspended services temporarily or moved them online. A small, noisy minority composed mostly of fundamentalist Christians insisted that they were above the law and held in-person services anyway. Some enlisted Religious Right legal groups to take their cases to court. Americans United’s Legal Department has been tracking these lawsuits and filed legal briefs in many of them. Their count shows that of the cases filed, courts have ruled in at least 21 cases that states have the authority to issue public health orders that limit large gatherings at both secular and religious entities; only in about seven cases have courts gone the other way.

What about the American people – do they support the idea that a house of worship should have an absolute right to hold in-person services even in the face of a pandemic? Nope. A recent poll showed that a mere 9 percent of Americans back this view. Forty-two percent were willing to permit services as long as proper social distancing was observed, while 48 percent said in-person religious services shouldn’t be allowed at all.

While groups like the AFA lift up the voices of extremists, Americans would do better to listen to the many faith leaders who are advocating a reasonable and prudent path toward reopening and to heed the words of religious leaders who are not rushing to reopen because their communities have been hard hit by the pandemic.

Two religious leaders recently penned an interesting column for the York Daily Record in Pennsylvania. The Rev. Joel Folkemer, lead pastor of Union Lutheran Church, and the Rev. Carla Christopher Wilson, co-chair of the Toward Racial Justice Task Force of Lower Susquehanna Synod, vowed to refrain from holding in-person services until it’s safe. They cited a religious impulse: Their faith compels them to care for the members of their congregations – and that means protecting them from sickness.

“These are real people; beloved, cherished people,” Folkemer and Wilson write of their congregants. “They are friends, lunch buddies, parents, grandparents, and volunteers. What they are not is acceptable potential collateral damage.”

The two go on to say, “We believe we have a timeless faith and a God who can work through all things, including the internet. We are patient, and no, we are most definitely not opening the doors of our buildings until the consensus of infectious disease experts and church leaders advise it is safe. This isn’t about politics, it’s about love. We’ll see you online.”

That message of care, concern and decency stands in stark contrast to the blathering we’re hearing from the AFA’s band of howlers. Let’s hope the words of true leaders like Folkemer and Wilson guide America’s faith community in the weeks and months to come.

P.S. AU continues to do a lot of work to ensure that church-state separation is respected during the pandemic. We’d love to have your support!