Church, State And The Coronavirus: An Update Of Recent Developments

  Rob Boston

We’ve seen several important church-state developments related to the coronavirus pandemic. Here’s a round-up of recent news:

* Yesterday Americans United sent a letter to Kathyleen M. Kunkel, cabinet secretary for the New Mexico Department of Health, urging her to alter a March 24 public health order that curbs most mass gatherings but that exempts “individuals congregated in a church, synagogue, mosque, or other place of worship.”

Observed AU President and CEO Rachel Laser, “This exemption allows religious gatherings to continue under circumstances deemed too dangerous for secular gatherings, putting the public health at risk. We write to explain why this exemption is not only detrimental to public health but also unconstitutional and to urge you to revoke it immediately.”

Kunkel is the third state official AU has written to about coronavirus-related orders that exempt houses of worship. The others are Michigan and Kansas.

* Law enforcement officials in Hillsborough County, Fla., have arrested Rodney Howard-Browne, pastor of the River Church at Tampa Bay, after he refused to stop holding services. Howard-Browne has vowed to continue sponsoring services, and witnesses reported seeing dozens of cars pulling into the church parking lot Sunday night.

Hillsborough County Sheriff Chad Chronister said law enforcement was compelled to act.

“His reckless disregard for human life put hundreds of people from his congregation at risk and thousands of residents who may interact with them this week,” Chronister said.

Thankfully, many faith leaders are taking the proper precautions. Bishop Thomas Scott of 34th Street Church of God in Tampa appeared at a press conference with the sheriff to encourage faith communities to avoid mass gatherings.

“It is important for the religious community to govern themselves according to the laws of the land. The Bible instructs us to obey the laws of the land,” Scott said, noting that his church has moved to online Sunday and Wednesday worship services. “We value the importance of the laws of the land and we value the importance of social distancing, and more important, protecting our parishioners. Make sure they are not in harm’s way or that they spread this deadly disease throughout the community.” 

Liberty Counsel, an extreme Religious Right legal group run by Mat Staver, has agreed to represent Howard-Browne in court.

* Religious Right activists in Harris County, Texas, are going to the Texas Supreme Court today in an attempt to nullify a public health order issued by County Executive Lina Hidalgo, which requires most businesses to close and does not exempt houses of worship.

The lawsuit was filed in part by Steven Hotze, a Christian nationalist and opponent of LGBTQ rights who has been active in Texas Republican Party politics for decades. Hotze and a handful of ministers assert that Hidalgo’s order violates religious freedom.

Last week, a court in New Hampshire rejected a similar lawsuit brought by people who said they had a right to attend secular and religious gatherings.

(Update: This afternoon, AU’s Legal Department filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the Harris County case, arguing that it’s s not only permissible for the county to include houses of worship and religious services in its ban of in-person gatherings, but it would be unconstitutional to exempt religious gatherings from the  order.)

* Officials in New Jersey are cracking down on unauthorized gatherings at religious buildings. Yesterday police broke up a gathering of dozens of men at a yeshiva in Lakewood, N.J., and charged two men, David Gluck and Abraham Haberfeld, with maintaining a nuisance.

* Jerry Falwell Jr. continues to receive criticism for his decision to reopen Liberty University, where at least one student has tested positive for COVID-19 and several others have reported flu-like symptoms. Columnist Michael Gerson, himself a conservative evangelical, pulls no punches as he makes some relevant points about Falwell’s poor reasoning in today’s column.

Americans United will continue to protect our constitutional right to religious freedom amid these new attempts to undermine church-state separation in response to the coronavirus outbreak. Even during hard times – especially during hard times – we must defend the Constitution. And remember, we’re keeping a list of resources on church-state relations, including books, podcasts, documentaries and so on, that you can check out from home. We’ll be updating it regularly. 

Congress needs to hear from you!

Urge your legislators to co-sponsor the Do No Harm Act today.

The Do No Harm Act will help ensure that our laws are a shield to protect religious freedom and not used as a sword to harm others by undermining civil rights laws and denying access to health care.

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