As we noted on Friday, President Donald Trump announced that houses of worship should be allowed to open despite the ongoing coronavirus pandemic and implied that he would override governors who have issued orders limiting the size and scope of religious services.
It was more of Trump’s trademark bluster. He doesn’t have the power to issue orders like that. Furthermore, as Americans United President and CEO Rachel Laser pointed out, the threat was “irresponsible and reckless – and tragically, will lead to more deaths.” Laser asserted that Trump’s “cynical pandering to his religious extremist base is putting the health and well-being of the American people in jeopardy.” (Her comments were taken nationwide by several media outlets, including Religion News Service, Politico and ABC News.)
Governors are refusing to buckle under to Trump’s threat. In New Jersey, Gov. Phil Murphy (D) was blunt. The state, he said, wants to see houses of worship reopen. He added, “But we want to make sure we do it right, responsibly and that we don't kill anyone by doing it too fast.”
Unfortunately, not all legislators are being that responsible. In two states – Pennsylvania and North Carolina – state lawmakers have introduced legislation that would make it impossible for state officials to restrict religious gatherings during a public-health emergency.
In Pennsylvania, state Reps. Eric Nelson (R-Westmoreland County) and Clint Owlett (R-Tioga County) have introduced H.B. 2530. It would amend a 2002 religious freedom law to prohibit the governor from issuing executive or emergency orders during a pandemic or other emergency that “infringe on the right to assemble to worship according to a person's faith” or “impact the ability to travel to or from a place of worship.” (This bill will be heard by the Pennsylvania State Government Committee today.)
The North Carolina bill is quite similar. H.B. 1059 would amend state law to say that to bar governors from prohibiting religious organizations from meeting for worship inside a building that is located in an area that has been declared a state of emergency.
As we’ve noted several times since the outbreak of the pandemic, giving houses of worship special treatment and privileges to meet while denying that right to similarly situated secular entities violates the First Amendment. In addition, it’s bad public policy because it threatens public health.
Due to the communal nature of many faith services, houses of worship are uniquely situated to be vectors for transmission of coronavirus. In California, which is moving to allow houses of worship to reopen, two churches that were holding unauthorized services have been identified as sources of recent outbreaks in Mendocino and Butte counties.
Government officials who have temporarily banned in-person religious services or limited the number of people who can attend them aren’t trying to squash religious freedom, they’re working to protect us all from a potentially lethal virus. Bills that would tie governors’s hands are counterproductive and dangerous. Let’s hope the bills in Pennsylvania and North Carolina are quickly rejected and that similar measures don’t surface elsewhere.