In normal times, when a house of worship holds its services, how many people attend and what form that worship takes would be none of the government’s business.
These are not normal times. The coronavirus has reached the level of a pandemic, and states and cities are taking unprecedented steps to curb gatherings of people. Most schools have closed and events like concerts, plays, lectures, movies, sporting matches, social functions and others have been shut down.
The restrictions include houses of worship, and the vast majority of religious leaders are being responsible and have either moved services online or canceled them outright. Some religious leaders have issued thoughtful statements about the need to behave in a way that protects us all during this difficult time. The leaders of the National Association of Evangelicals and Christianity Today have issued a statement that will likely resonate with many religious people: Believers aren’t being asked to stop worshipping – merely to do it differently.
Unfortunately, not everyone is taking the threat of coronavirus seriously or they’re misunderstanding how religious freedom impacts restrictions.
In some states, notably Michigan, government officials have spawned confusion by issuing orders that ban gatherings of 50 or more but go on to effectively exempt worship services. Under pressure from conservative legislators, Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (D) granted such an exemption last week. She told Fox News on Sunday that she acted because, “Well, you know, the separation of church and state, and the Republican legislature asked me to clarify that that’s an area that we don’t have the ability to enforce and control.”
But Whitmer is wrong about that. Separation of church and state does not demand that houses of worship get an exemption in a case like this. In fact, granting worship facilities special treatment while denying it to similarly situated secular events – concerts, public lectures, rallies, etc. – is preference to religion, which the government is not supposed to show.
Religious freedom doesn’t mean the right to expose others to harm, injury or death. Certain religious practices can be curbed or banned if they threaten others. In this case, the government is acting to protect citizens by issuing neutral rules that treat religious and secular bodies exactly the same – 50 people can’t gather for a flute recital on Sunday morning, nor can they for a religious service.
Americans United is working to educate policymakers about this important issue and how separation of church and state is to be applied during these challenging times. In a letter sent to Whitmer yesterday, AU President and CEO Rachel Laser observed, “[A]t this moment, the Constitution not only permits but demands that the safety and health of every single person must take precedence. In order to protect the lives and health of those who attend religious services and those who might be in contact with them, we urge you to rescind immediately the religious exemption for houses of worship.” (AU is sending similar letters to the governors of other states who have exempted houses of worship.)
In a media statement, Laser said, “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.”
At Americans United, we’re working hard to convey the message that we’re all in this together. For everyone to make it through safely, we all have to abide by the same rules – and that includes America’s houses of worship.