June 2020 Church & State Magazine | Editorial

Many Americans have been living under stay-at-home orders for two months or more now. It’s to be expected that some folks are feeling antsy. No one wants to stay inside for good.

But by and large, Americans are also sensible people. They know that reopening the country too soon could lead to a second wave of the deadly coronavirus, and they’re telling pollsters that they want to be careful and take things slow.

Unfortunately, the national discussion over this issue is being hijacked by extremists, and we’re sad to say, some misguided religious leaders are among them.

To be clear, the vast majority of America’s faith leaders have done the right thing. They’ve temporarily suspended religious services or moved them online. They do not want to risk the health of their congregants by bringing people back for in-person services too early.

A small minority, though, is insisting that any attempt by government to curb in-person religious gatherings – even if secular groups are treated the same – is a violation of the First Amendment. Aided by Religious Right groups, they are increasingly going to court to demand the right to reopen.

The first round of litigation in these cases was under way as this issue of Church & State went to press. Most courts have ruled in favor of the right of states to impose neutral “do-not-gather” rules on religious and secular entities, although there have been a few notable exceptions. The issue could eventually end up in the U.S. Supreme Court.

Polls show that most Americans don’t favor allowing houses of worship to open for full-blown, in-person services until we’ve vanquished the coronavirus. Our constitutional rights are not determined by polls, of course, but in this case, the people have it right: As long as government is banning all large gatherings – no plays, no rock concerts, no baseball games, no public lectures and no church services – it’s not doing anything that singles out religious groups for disfavored treatment.

Some religious leaders have argued that because grocery stores, hardware stores and other businesses deemed “essential” are open, houses of worship should be as well. It’s a weak argument that has been debunked by several federal courts.

In short, shopping for groceries to keep you and your family alive is a necessary activity even during a public health crisis. Attending a religious service, no matter how important faith may be to some people, does not rise to that level. (Plus, there are alternatives available such as services conducted online, over the radio or on television.)

In addition, going to the grocery store to stock up is hardly a social activity these days. As courts have noted, people enter the store, get what they need and leave. Many stores control the number of people who can enter at one time, and rigid social distancing regulations are put into place. As anyone who has stood outside a store for an hour waiting to get in can testify, the experience is hardly pleasant.

The whole point of a religious service, by contrast, is communal. People may stay in a service for hours and engage in social activities. The chance that congregants will come into close contact with one another is much higher.

These people will then leave the service and go back into their communities, where they might spread the virus. The situation is further complicated by the fact that some people can be asymptomatic; they carry the virus and are capable of passing it to others without showing any symptoms themselves. (In California, the pastors of three churches insisted in court that no one attending their services is sick. Unless all their congregants have been tested, they have no way of knowing that.)

Public health experts warn that if we move too quickly to reopen, the virus could surge again, leading to more deaths. They’ve also pointed out that early in the pandemic, before closure orders had been issued, religious services were a common source of infection.

Knowing this, many of America’s religious leaders have done the kind, compassionate and decent thing and kept their doors closed for the good of their communities. The minority who feel differently have the right to believe what they want, but they have no right to use religious freedom as a club to bludgeon others.

When applied neutrally and across the board to religious and secular gatherings alike, do-not-gather orders are constitutional. For the good of us all, they must be followed.