May 2020 Church & State Magazine | Editorial

The U.S. Constitution, Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson famously observed in 1949, is not “a suicide pact.”

What Jackson meant was that while certain fundamental rights and liberties are guaranteed to the people in the Bill of Rights, they can’t be interpreted in such a way that causes harm to others. As a familiar example holds, your right to swing your fist ends where another person’s nose begins.

Religious freedom is one of our core rights, and it is precious to the American people. But it is not absolute. Religious freedom, for example, can’t be used as a shield to excuse criminal activity. Nor can it be used as a device to cause harm to others.

You can’t seize your neighbor’s house and claim God really meant for you to have it. Even if you sincerely believe that, you’re still likely to end up behind bars.

Similarly, you can’t threaten the health and well-being of your larger community just because you believe your faith commands it.

These are difficult times. The outbreak of coronavirus, now a worldwide pandemic, has challenged our nation in ways most Americans have never before seen. Certain sacrifices are called for. We’ve endured restrictions on our movements that under normal circumstances would not be acceptable.

Americans have agreed to this because they realize lives are at stake. To curb the spread of the virus, government officials in the states have issued stay-at-home orders. People are expected to stay inside unless they are engaging in an essential activity such as shopping for groceries, getting medical care, tending to a sick person or traveling to and from a workplace that’s deemed important enough to stay open.

In addition, large gatherings have been banned. Americans have been told not to gather in groups larger than 10. (The number is lower in some states.)

Most religious leaders have responded to this with grace and creativity. Many have moved religious services online. They are aware that holding services would be dangerous to their congregants. They know that several coronavirus outbreaks have been traced to events held in houses of worship.

But a small number of religious leaders are behaving irresponsibly and continue to hold in-person services. In some states, governors have enabled this behavior by issuing bans on large gatherings but then exempting houses of worship or classifying them as “essential” services that can stay open. In other states, some rogue faith leaders are simply ignoring the orders not to gather.

The U.S. Supreme Court has made it clear that laws designed to protect public health and safety are legal as long as they are applied in a neutral and equal fashion. Thus, if plays, concerts, sporting events, lectures and other activities are shut down, religious services may be as well. In fact, to order an end to all public gatherings but then exempt those of a religious nature extends preference to religion; it gives it a benefit that is not available to similarly situated secular events. That’s unconstitutional.

In the face of a pandemic, the answer is not to allow religious and secular groups alike to threaten public health and welfare. The answer is to require that all gatherings – religious and non-religious – abide by the same set of rules.

This is common sense. After all, a virus doesn’t know if it’s infecting you at a poetry recital or a church service. The people who attend those events then venture into their larger communities, where they can spread the sickness. Government officials have a right –  in fact, they have a duty – to see that the population is protected from reckless actions.

Some religious leaders have resorted to arguing that God will protect them from the virus. Perhaps – but state policy can’t rest on theological suppositions like that. Others have asserted that Americans need their faith communities now more than ever. For many Americans who are religious, this is undoubtedly true. But as we’ve seen, our religious leaders are quite capable of meeting these needs by computer and telephone. For believers, God’s presence is felt beyond physical walls.

No one likes the current situation, and we all want to get back to normal life as soon as possible. The clergy who are resisting bans on large gatherings are making that more difficult by facilitating the spread of coronavirus.

No one at any level of government should help them do that. Indeed, our leaders should take the necessary steps to stop them.