A broad coalition of 27 faith groups has released an important statement today making it clear that while religious freedom is a cherished right, it shouldn’t become an excuse to endanger public health.

The statement responds to a spate of bills in state legislatures that would make it more difficult for state and local governments to apply public health orders to houses of worship. Many of the bills create broad exemptions for houses of worship from any emergency orders. It’s one of the more troubling reactions to the coronavirus pandemic.

When the pandemic erupted more than a year ago, governments took reasonable, commonsense steps to curb large gatherings to stop the spread. These measures, which were always intended to be temporary until we were able to overcome the virus, applied to religious and secular groups alike. The goal was to keep everyone safe and healthy.

The vast majority of religious leaders accepted these regulations and either halted in-person services or moved them online. But some misguided clerics resisted, insisting that they should have the right to hold large, public gatherings even in the face of a global health crisis. Legislation has emerged in several states that supports this reckless view.

In their statement, the faith organizations – representing Christian, Jewish, Muslim and other communities –make it clear that these measures are the wrong response.

“Religious freedom is a fundamental American value, and the freedom to worship in accordance with one’s spiritual practices and traditions is a right of the highest order,” asserts the statement. “At the same time, religious freedom does not demand tying the hands of public officials who are trying to safeguard public health as they respond to unforeseen events like pandemics, natural disasters and other emergencies. Indeed, all of our denominations have found creative ways to provide opportunities for worship during the pandemic, recognizing the spiritual sustenance and sense of community that religious practices provide.”

The statement goes on to say, “Times of public crisis demand that all community leaders – religious, secular, and governmental – work together to find solutions. By giving religious gatherings a pre-emptive exemption from future emergency orders, we fear that these bills will unintentionally paint religious communities as part of the problem, not the solution, and thereby undercut our ability to partner with community leaders to defeat the crisis.”

Concludes the statement, “These bills, which claim to protect houses of worship, do not make religious gatherings safer – to be sure, the pandemic acknowledges no religious exemption.”

The statement is a vital reminder that most members of America’s religious communities recognize the need for sacrifice in the face of an unprecedented public health crisis. Legislators in the states should heed these voices, not those of religious extremists who selfishly place their own desires above the health and safety of the communities they claim to serve.