Racial Equality

The Coronavirus And Church-State Separation: Here’s Some Recent News

  Rob Boston

While some states are taking tentative steps to reopen certain services, much of the nation remains on lockdown due to the coronavirus pandemic. Here’s a round-up of some recent news about the virus and its relationship to church-state issues:

* More than 68,000 people in the United States have died from coronavirus. As several media outlets have noted, that’s higher than the number of U.S. soldiers killed in combat during the Vietnam War, which lasted nine years. Nevertheless, Jerry Falwell Jr., president of Liberty University in Lynchburg, continues to minimize the pandemic and spread lies about it.

Appearing on a conservative radio show last week, Falwell said the media is putting out inaccurate numbers about the death toll because “they’re counting everybody who died of old age and heart attacks and whatever.” He also ridiculed the idea of people wearing masks in public places (which is recommended by the Centers for Disease Control Prevention and is a requirement in some parts of the country) and boasted that he’s not doing it.

“You know I haven’t changed anything I do,” Falwell blustered. “You don’t see people wearing masks around Lynchburg, Virginia … except at the liberal grocery store … It’s like the liberals think they’re going to live forever. I don’t know, maybe they’re afraid of what’s going to happen to them when they die, I don’t know.”

A major uproar erupted when Falwell insisted on keeping Liberty University open and told students they were free to return to campus after spring break. Two staff members have since tested positive for coronavirus, and there have been reports of students being sick as well.

* Over the past few days, both The New York Times and The Washington Post have editorialized about the pandemic’s effects on First Amendment rights, and both endorsed a view promoted by Americans United: that during a public health emergency, the government can restrict worship services and secular gatherings equally.

“Bans like these are legal, as long as they are neutral and applicable to everyone,” observed The Times. “A state may not shut down only certain types of events, or prohibit speakers expressing only certain viewpoints. Under Supreme Court precedent, any infringement on speech or religion must be incidental to the central goal of the restriction, which in this case is clear: stopping the spread of the coronavirus.”

The Post agreed writing, “Churches, synagogues, mosques and other faith-based institutions are not self-contained communities. Their congregants may interact with neighbors, friends, lovers, grocery store personnel – and, if they get sick, health-care workers. A community’s right to safety and health in the face of a potentially mortal threat cannot be collateral damage in an absolutist interpretation of constitutional protections.”

* While Christian Nationalists are pushing to reopen houses of worship, a new poll by the Pew Research Center shows that most remain closed. More than 90 percent of Americans who attend services at least monthly say their houses of worship are closed. Furthermore, the suspension of in-person services has not led Americans to lose their faith. Forty-seven percent of Americans say their faith is unchanged as a result of the closings. Twenty-four percent say it has gotten stronger, while only 2 percent report that their faith has weakened. (The rest, 26 percent, said the question is not applicable because they aren’t religious.)

* Is President Donald Trump’s inept handling of the coronavirus crisis finally denting his standing among white evangelicals? Maybe. A new poll by Public Religion Research Institute shows that 66 percent of white evangelical Protestants hold a favorable view of Trump – a drop of 11 points since March.

Americans United remains on the job with staff working from home to defend separation of religion and government during these challenging times. Watch this space for updates.

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