Americans have been living under restrictions related to the coronavirus pandemic for six months now. When the country began shutting down in the spring, we saw a flurry of legal cases brought by houses of worship that resisted public health orders requiring them to cease holding in-person services.
Many courts – including the U.S. Supreme Court – upheld these orders, ruling that state officials have the right to protect people from a potentially fatal illness. But that doesn’t mean the issue has died down. We’re still seeing resistance, particularly in California.
A mega-church there has been openly defying state orders to limit the number of people who attend its indoor services. Grace Community Church in Sun Valley has ignored public health orders by hosting services featuring more than 6,000 attendees. Under an order issued by Los Angeles County, houses of worship are limited to 100 people or 25% of the building’s capacity, whichever is lower. Video of the church’s services shows people standing close together, and few are wearing masks.
The church’s pastor, John MacArthur, is facing fines and a lawsuit by county officials but says he won’t back down.
“We open the doors because that’s what we are,” MacArthur told CNN. “We’re a church, and we’re going to trust those people to make adult decisions about the reality of their physical and spiritual health.”
MacArthur isn’t alone. In Redding, Pastor Sean Feucht has been holding mass worship services in defiance of the law. A few days ago, Feucht held a large rally that drew thousands to the state capitol in Sacramento. Media outlets reported that most attendees didn’t wear masks and didn’t engage in social distancing. (Rallies that are held mostly outdoors can still become “superspreader” events if proper precautions aren’t followed.)
Feucht, MacArthur and other defiant religious leaders like them are being egged on by Religious Right legal groups. These organizations are representing the pastors in court for free and portraying them as folk heroes in slick P.R. campaigns.
Americans deserve to know the truth: Far from being heroes, these misguided pastors don’t care about the health and well-being of their communities. They in no way represent mainstream religious leaders, most of whom have done the right thing by temporarily suspending services or moving them online.
If you’re looking for heroes during this pandemic, you can find them on the front lines of the medical profession, on the staffs of nursing homes, in public school classrooms, in labs where men and women labor to create a vaccine, behind the counter at your local grocery store – and in the houses of worship and faith leaders who are finding innovative ways to meet their communities’ spiritual and physical needs while still following public health guidelines.
You won’t find them hanging out with Christian nationalists who believe that their desire to meet for large, in-person religious services should give them the power to expose everyone else to a serious illness.
P.S. Americans United is hard at work ensuring that Christian nationalist groups don’t win the right to use religious freedom as a weapon to lash out at others during the pandemic. Read about our efforts here.