Americans United for Separation of Church and State praised faith communities that are protecting public health by halting in-person worship services during the COVID-19 pandemic and urged government officials to follow the guidance of public health experts and not exempt religious services from temporary bans against gatherings of large groups of people.
In particular, Americans United called on the governors and public health officials of Arkansas, Connecticut, Iowa, Kansas, Michigan, New Mexico and Tennessee to stop exempting worship services and other religious gatherings from their executive orders that prohibit the public from gathering in large groups. These religious exemptions not only pose a significant risk to the public health, but they violate the Constitution’s promise of church-state separation, which demands that religious and secular gatherings be treated equally.
“We recognize that many people find solace in attending religious services, especially during uncertain times such as these. Thus, we share in the deep sorrow that the already challenging coronavirus situation also means temporarily halting in-person religious services,” said Rachel Laser, president and CEO of Americans United. “But when health experts and public officials determine that large gatherings must be cancelled for the public good, we must follow their lead and apply these guidelines to secular and religious gatherings equally. The Constitution not only permits it, but demands it. Such restrictions do not violate religious freedom; they ensure religious freedom is not misused in ways that risk people’s lives.
“We applaud the faith communities that are finding creative ways to worship together online or by broadcast, and we hope that people will find comfort by participating in these virtual services. We may be physically apart, but we will get through this public health crisis together – even if it’s together in new ways.”
Americans United’s letters to Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, Connecticut Gov. Ned Lamont, Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds, Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly, Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, New Mexico Dept. of Health Secretary Kathyleen Kunkel and Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee detail why exempting religious gatherings from their executive orders are detrimental to the public health and unconstitutional:
- COVID-19 is just as likely to spread at houses of worship as at other places of mass gathering. In fact, houses of worship have been directly linked to the spread of the virus in Georgia, Kentucky, New York and elsewhere.
- More than a century of legal precedent makes clear that the government has the authority to protect the public health through measures such as mandating vaccinations, even when some people have religious objections. Since the coronavirus pandemic began, more than a dozen courts nationwide have ruled on demands for religious exemptions to public health orders that limit both religious and secular gatherings; only one court has granted an exemption to allow in-person religious services.
- The First Amendment of the U.S Constitution prohibits the government from granting religious exemptions that would harm others or put people’s lives at risk.
After receiving AU’s letters, Kansas and New Mexico officials ended the religious exemptions in their public health orders.
Americans United is a religious freedom advocacy organization based in Washington, D.C. Founded in 1947, AU educates Americans about the importance of church-state separation in safeguarding religious freedom.