Georgia and Texas were among the first states to reopen as coronavirus cases begin to slow down in some parts of the country. The Republican governors of both states argued that the economic cost of remaining closed was too high and that it was time to get back to normal life.
Both states allowed houses of worship to reopen as long as certain social distancing regulations were put in place. Two churches that reopened have since had to shut down again when people got sick.
In Houston, Holy Ghost Catholic Church resumed in-person services May 2. Eleven days later, a priest at the church died after coming down with pneumonia-like symptoms. While it’s not clear what killed the Rev. Donnell Kirchner, five members of a religious order connected with the church have since tested positive for coronavirus, although none is displaying active symptoms.
Catoosa Baptist Tabernacle in Ringgold, Ga., reopened April 26. Church leaders insist that they required people to sit six feet apart and kept the door open so congregants would not have to touch knobs. Nevertheless, several congregants have since tested positive for coronavirus, and the church is closed again.
Americans United has argued that it’s unconstitutional for government officials to order that secular venues – such as concerts, sporting matches and lectures – be closed while allowing houses of worship to conduct in-person services. It’s also bad public policy. After all, a virus can spread just as easily at a religious service as it can at a rock concert.
As the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) noted in a recent report, large gatherings, such as religious services, can be efficient vectors for virus transmission. CDC officials studied a church in rural Arkansas where services were held in early March. The CDC noted among 92 attendees at the church, 38% developed COVID-19, the respiratory ailment caused by coronavirus. Three people died.
The CDC’s report contains a simple graphic that explains how infection can spread into communities. It points out that two people who were infected with the virus attended church events between March 6-8. Those two infected 35 others. From there, the virus spread into the community where it sickened 26 others and resulted in one death.
In its report, the CDC makes what would seem to be an obvious recommendation: “Faith-based organizations should work with local health officials to determine how to implement the U.S. Government guidelines for modifying activities during the COVID-19 pandemic to prevent transmission of the virus to their members and their communities.”
Unfortunately, those guidelines don’t exist – at least not for houses of worship. The Trump administration removed a section dealing with faith communities from a document intended to guide the nation as it moves toward reopening. As The New York Times reported last week, administration officials argued that the recommendations for houses of worship were too restrictive.
The result is that while schools, restaurants, child-care centers, mass-transit systems and other entities have received detailed advice and are expected to implement certain policies to keep Americans safe, houses of worship aren't being told anything about what they should or should not do.
You don’t have to look beyond some recent headlines to see how short-sighted that is. That’s why, in AU’s letters to governors and state health officials about their public health orders, in our friend-of-the-court briefs in cases where houses of worship are requesting religious exemptions from those orders and in our educational efforts to the public, we’re advocating that secular and religious gatherings be held to the same standards to protect everyone’s health and religious freedom. Join us to help in these efforts.