As we’ve noted several times on this blog, the vast majority of America’s religious leaders are doing the right thing during the coronavirus pandemic by either moving services online, temporarily suspending them or finding other creative ways to safely engage with their faith communities.
Unfortunately, a small cohort of faith leaders insists that the First Amendment’s guarantee of religious freedom gives them the right to engage in activities that could very well harm their communities and endanger lives. They’re demanding the right to keep the doors of their houses of worship open in the face of state and county orders that require there be no large gatherings of people. Increasingly, these misguided clerics are taking their cases to court.
The latest one comes from California, where three pastors in Riverside and San Bernardino counties have filed a lawsuit in federal court. The suit contends that churches have a right to stay open for in-person worship services or offer other types of religious services that require close contact, reported the Associated Press (AP).
In court papers, one of the pastors, James Moffatt at Church Unlimited in Indio, asserts that he “believes that Scripture commands him as a pastor to lay hands on people and pray for them, this includes the sick” and that he “also believes that he is required by Scripture to baptize individuals, something that cannot be done at an online service.” (Moffatt is joined in the lawsuit by Patrick Scales of Shield of Faith Family Church in Fontana and Brenda Wood of Word of Life Ministries International in Riverside.)
Yet the pastors also argue that California’s orders are overly broad because the churches are capable of practicing social distancing, according to the AP. In Moffatt’s case, that can’t be true since he’s seeking the right to lay hands on people and conduct baptisms. That’s not social distancing.
All three pastors insist that they “have never had or contracted said coronavirus; they have never been at any time exposed to the danger of contracting it, and have never been in any locality where said coronavirus, or any germs of bacteria thereof, has or have existed.”
Here they (and their attorneys) are ignoring the realities of how this virus spreads – and the many cases across the country and the world in which COVID-19 outbreaks have been connected to houses of worship and religious services. These pastors don’t know what they might have been exposed to. A person can have coronavirus and be asymptomatic. Such people are infected but don’t know it and may never become sick – but they are still capable of passing the virus on to others. That’s just one of the reasons why large gatherings – secular and religious – have been curbed.
California has made great strides in combating the spread of coronavirus because its leaders acted early and aggressively. These pastors want to jeopardize that success. What they’re after isn’t true religious freedom; they’re really seeking to use that noble principle as a cover for reckless actions – in this case, to spread a dangerous and potentially deadly sickness. That’s not in the public interest, and the court should quickly reject their lawsuit.