A few weeks ago, President Donald Trump toyed with the idea of reopening the country’s economy by Easter. Public health officials reacted sharply to the idea, and Trump dropped it.
Kind of. Over the weekend, he floated the idea of lifting social distancing restrictions for Easter only so people who wanted to could attend church services.
Trump suggested that “maybe we could allow special for churches” and recommended gatherings with “great separation.”
“It’s something we should talk about,” Trump said. (Note that Trump didn’t suggest opening synagogues and mosques, even though Jews and Muslims also have major holidays this month. One suspects this might be another sop to the president’s Christian nationalist allies.)
But there’s really no point in talking about it. We’ve been through this before. As Americans United has pointed out, allowing people to gather for religious services while denying them the right to attend secular events violates the First Amendment. Americans United President and CEO Rachel Laser put it well to ABC News yesterday: “Equal treatment does not violate religious freedom; it ensures religious freedom is not misused to risk people’s lives.”
Furthermore, encouraging people to attend religious services – even if only for one day – is dangerous. Several outbreaks of coronavirus have been traced to events at churches. In Albany, Ga., dozens of cases have been linked to a funeral at a chapel. In Washington state, a Presbyterian church held choir practice March 10. Of the choir’s 60 members, 45 have tested positive for coronavirus.
It’s understandable that some Americans are seeking the comfort and solace of religious communities at this difficult time. Religious leaders have stepped up to meet the need. The vast majority are being responsible and holding services remotely. The Washington Post has even reported that some pastors are using platforms such as Facetime and Zoom to offer last rites for the dying.
As we strive to flatten the curve, the last thing we want to do is risk slipping backward. Trying to find ways for people to meet in large groups, even for religious worship on an important holiday for Christians, is counterproductive. Trump needs to drop the idea for good.