Re-Opening Churches

Controversy over Reopening Churches

on May 25, 2020

Reopening of churches and other houses of worship appears to be developing as an issue of some controversy as the nation moves to reopen society. An earlier article reviewed unreasonable attempts to prevent corporate worship even where there were drastic measures to prevent the spread of disease (such as drive in worship in separate cars or very small congregations widely spaced). The unreasonable claims that such meetings endanger lives when drive-in restaurants are allowed is clearly inconsistent, and appears to show that religious activity is being unduly restricted.

As this writer has argued in a previous article related to the coronavirus epidemic, the stated objective of “saving lives” does not justify destroying the life’s work and livelihoods of millions of Americans by stopping economic and social activity as far as can be done without denying what people need for daily life (although even food supply chains are affected). But it is consistent with the objective of eradicating disease, currently an ideal for medical efforts. It is good when a disease, like smallpox, is eradicated. But something less drastic than the widespread lockdowns is needed to avoid long lasting damage to society, however much this postpones medical objectives. Goalposts seemed to have been moved to demand not only control of a new disease, but a clear path to eradication, something not demanded in the Twentieth century, which also never saw a national or global shutdown, despite pandemics.

Society must be reopened, and churches along with other organizations, but substantial restrictions are proposed on how they can function. Some propose the new restrictions until a vaccine is available. The Centers for Disease Control interim guidance for community gatherings proposes that gathered groups avoid handshaking, hand-holding, use of a collection plate, and suspending the practice of communion (or at least modifying it to achieve as much sterility as possible). Other highly restrictive proposals which were challenged by the Trump Administration included suspending the use of choirs, and restricting the use of hymnbooks and prayer books. A truly radical restriction, enacted in Germany, would ban congregational singing. The Gospel Coalition considers this, but also suggests other alternatives, including the use of face masks to reduce potential for coronavirus transmission.

A position that seems to be developing from left-leaning sources is that churches cannot fully re-open with more than 50 people at a time until a vaccine is available, at least bringing full eradication into view. This, along with implementation of restrictions noted above, would make church life a pale reflection of what it had been. But it has been advanced by the governor of Illinois and the Center for American Progress. This effectively would mean that ordinary church life could not return for more than a year. The faithful will be deprived of the joy of normal fellowship and singing for at least that amount of time. All this – in addition meticulous efforts at sterilization in public places – when a high proportion (ranging from 22% to 85%) of deaths in seven states examined have been in nursing homes, with the proportion of nursing home deaths increasing as the days go by. And all this for a lockdown policy in the wider society out of all proportion to the danger. The extreme mitigation efforts are inducing national poverty and dependency on the state (i.e., socialism) when only a tiny fraction of people will be affected or die, generally old people. And even the deaths claimed are questionable, since practice in America has been to code any death where a patient is positive for coronavirus as a coronavirus death, no matter what other ailment the patient might have had.

The Center for American Progress article was particularly disturbing in its claim that the constitutional guarantee of religious freedom must bend to questionable medical assessments of public danger. The article is intent on the strict regime of closure and “social distancing” being applied alike to religious and secular organizations. But the First Amendment’s clear solicitude of religious practice argues otherwise. As will be noted below, legal service organizations defending religious freedom are focusing on the problem of disfavoring of religious bodies in contrast to similarly situated organizations. This may be a good argument to make in today’s environment. But it shows how badly the right of religious freedom has deteriorated in the recent decades of secularist assault, and as a result of the Smith decision (1990), which requires targeting of religious belief and practice to be shown before a religious freedom claim can be made.

A very reasonable way to reconcile religious freedom with medical warnings is to understand religious gatherings as essential services. Even with essential services, precautions such as face masks might be required. But finding religious services “essential” is precisely what the CAP article objected to. It listed 20 states and their judgments that religious activity is essential. The clear assumption is that physical sustenance from grocery stores and drug stores is essential, but spiritual sustenance from churches and synagogues is not. Is it imaginable that the American founders – steeped as the nation was in the sectarian devotion of that day and the civil religion of the American founding – would have agreed? Nor is Attorney General Barr’s concern unfounded that the closures occasioned by the epidemic provide a way for officials hostile to the Judeo-Christian heritage to strike out against religious groups they disfavor. As noted in an earlier article, New York City Mayor Bill deBlasio threatened to close any church and synagogue building “permanently” for conducting religious services. But worship continued in a mosque in Syracuse, New York.

Reopening advice from conservative legal and advocacy organizations show considerable caution in the extent to which churches should be re-opened. The Christian Law Association, while not advocating that all churches reopen, maintains that churches have a constitutional right to be open. Liberty Counsel, noting particularly the Scriptural injunction to believers to assemble together, and the greater need for fellowship in time of crisis, made basically the same constitutional claim that churches and other houses of worship cannot be treated as “nonessential” when secular organizations (such as liquor stores) are treated as essential and thus open to the public without a ten person limit. Liberty Counsel also observes that the state cannot determine what religious activities satisfy religious obligation, in this case whether or not online services can substitute for in-person worship. On the other hand, Liberty Counsel’s suggested safety measures included very substantial changes in worship, such as reduced seating, simulcasting services to other parts of the church plant to reduce meeting size, spacing of non-family worshipers, the use of recorded music rather than a choir, or a reduced choir. Similar recommendations came from the Family Research Council and the Gospel Coalition.

All these recommendations, like those from the CDC, are presented as suggestions. The mandatory closures and restrictions proclaimed by the governors present a problem for religious liberty, as they put the state in the position of saying what religious practice is and is not legal. Christian organizations advocating religious liberty have (wisely, I believe) accepted that the state can restrict public religious practice in the interest of public health. But in this unwise shutdown of society, it plays into the current leftist narrative that religious belief and practice (that leftists don’t agree with) is harmful and should be prohibited. Advocates of religious liberty are then in the position of comparing religious organizations to similarly situated organizations. This is more like anti-discrimination law ultimately appealing to the Fourteenth Amendment than religious freedom based on the First. Nevertheless, as noted in the links to Christian organizations, religious liberty is claimed where religious groups are disfavored. Certainly the claim that spiritual nourishment is as important as physical can be defended from the First Amendment.

First of all from Scripture, but also from the very nature of religious belief as a claim to final truth, and from the First Amendment, we can argue that if any organization is essential and should be allowed to function, churches should be.

  1. Comment by Dan on May 25, 2020 at 9:43 am

    How quickly the Chinese virus has transformed our society into one that increasingly looks like Communist China. That Christians acknowledge God as sovereign and the One with the primary call on their lives is something the “left” simply cannot abide. We are seeing the masks of civility being ripped off politicians who want to impose their control on the populace and find the current crisis as the perfect condition to give free reign to their authoritarian impulses, all under the guise of “caring for the people.” The conflict between the state as primary and the individual and their relationship to God as primary has played itself out over and over again since the times of ancient Israel.

    To quote Joshua “as for me and my house we will serve the Lord.” I believe Christians will have to practice civil disobedience and gather for worship no matter what the civil authorities say, but they will have to do so in a blameless way, practicing social distancing and cleanliness in a manner that makes manifest their compliance with established hygiene norms.

    The church militant always seems to grow the most when the temporal authorities try to eradicate it. As a prime example take the Communist Chinese Party. The harder it tries to stamp out the Christian church, the more it grows and the more people come to salvation through Jesus Christ.

  2. Comment by Diane on May 25, 2020 at 3:18 pm

    Religious freedom, religious liberty, whatever. Be reminded that less than ten years ago conservative Christians worked to pass amendments to their respective state constitutions defining marriage as “one man and one woman”. They ignored the reality of faith communities that authorized their clergy to officiate at same sex unions.

    In one state, NC, a state law on the books made criminal, punishable by imprisonment and/or fines, any one who officiated at an event where two people were joined together in what could be construed as marriage without having a marriage license.

    The United Church of Christ (UCC) denomination and several NC Jewish and Unitarian congregations sued NC, claiming their religious rights were denied. While the lawsuit wound its way through the courts, clergy and same-sex couples in their congregations chose not to defy state law. Instead, they traveled together to states that permitted same-sex marriages. I lived in one such state ((MD). The sanctuary in my UCC congregation was used multiple times by NC clergy officiating marriage services for NC same-sex couples (congregants in NC UCC). A marriage license was provided by the state of Maryland.

    Regardless of what conservatives believe about same-sex marriage, their beliefs are not shared by many American people of faith. Conservatives are now howling during this pandemic that their right to in-person worship is covered by the Constitution – and how dare their Constitutional right to religious freedom be denied!

    I’m not persuaded. These are the same folks who passionately worked to trample on the faith practices of congregations where same-sex marriages are affirmed and their clergy authorized to officiate at such. I find it utterly hypocritical that conservatives are demanding religious liberty for themselves when they worked to deny it for others.

    The lawsuit was settled and subsequently dismissed after the Supreme Court’s 2015 ruling in favor of marriage equality. Thousands of congregations in America have held legal, same-sex weddings since then. Clergy in NC can no longer be arrested for exercising their constitutional right to practice their faith.

    The judge presiding over the case where NC was sued issued an opinion that clearly stated North Carolina’s amendment, coupled with a law criminalizing clergy that participated as officiants for same-sex marriages, was unconstitutional, as it denied religious liberty.

    I do not believe for a minute that conservatives claiming orders to prevent in person worship are unconstitutional have any real commitment to freedom of religion for anyone other than themselves.

  3. Comment by Douglas E Ehrhardt on May 25, 2020 at 7:11 pm

    The UCC in my area supports Drag Queen Story Hour.And that’s Christian! I thought this site was Orthodox Christian. You my dear friend worship Satan

  4. Comment by David on May 25, 2020 at 9:58 pm

    Sorry, but you are comparing apples to oranges. There is a big difference between DENYING the BIBLICAL definition of marriage AND how we should gather and worship God during a pandemic.

  5. Comment by Reynolds on May 26, 2020 at 8:13 am

    Please the UCC and Unitarians are not really Christians. When you deny the resurrection of Christ and embrace pluralism you can’t claim the moral high ground.

  6. Comment by Rick Plasterer on May 26, 2020 at 9:42 pm

    Diane,

    If the North Carolina Unitarian Universalist clergy were claiming a power vested in them by the state prior to 2015, they didn’t have it. If their same-sex ceremonies were simply Unitarian Universalist religious ceremonies, it certainly seems to me that they had a First Amendment right to conduct them. Before 2003, there was a sodomy law on the books in North Carolina, and the same sex ceremony would have been facilitating illegal activity. The question then is whether religious freedom counts against sodomy laws. It didn’t count for the Mormons against bigamy laws in 1879. But that’s another involved question.

    But many religious groups have regular religious assemblies as a religious duty. As noted by the Christian Law Association in my link to its coronavirus shutdown statement, there might be very extreme wartime situations where religious services could be absolutely forbidden. But in this situation, the First Amendment should guarantee that worship services are classified as essential services.

    Rick

  7. Comment by David on May 26, 2020 at 9:04 am

    Contrary to comments made in earlier articles, public gatherings, including churches, were closed in the 1918 epidemic. The response in those days was local as it is today. St. Louis closed churches and schools, but Philadelphia held a massive Liberty Bond Parade and found its hospitals overflowing a week afterwards. Schools were only belated closed there as well.
    People imagine that bad things cannot happen when they are doing good things. This is obviously not true. There have been a number of documented cases where churches services have led to many infections. Having a closely seated congregation expelling lots of air in hymn singing is an ideal mode of transmission.
    Of course, there is the issue of selfishness when refusing to do things for the public good. Americans made lots of sacrifices in WWII, but I fear that nobleness has long left our society.

  8. Comment by Dan on May 26, 2020 at 10:40 am

    You are using a false premise here. My comment said that Christians should be sure to follow all accepted practices to ensure proper social distancing and hygiene practices, done to a higher standard than what the civil authorities require. Why is it that the authoritarians assume that Wal-Mart, liquor stores and abortion clinics can follow proper practices but Christians, in their churches, cannot. This is why people are properly calling it religious discrimination.

  9. Comment by David on May 26, 2020 at 2:22 pm

    Love thy neighbor as thyself.

  10. Comment by Rick Plasterer on May 26, 2020 at 9:57 pm

    David,

    In an earlier article on April 30, I noted that shutdowns in 1918 were local. Shutdowns this year were indeed ordered by the governors, but at the height of the shutdown in early April, all but four states had closed businesses they classed as “nonessential.”
    So effectively, we have had a national shutdown.

    Rick

  11. Comment by L. Cary on June 4, 2020 at 6:55 am

    “There have been a number of documented cases where churches services have led to many infections.”

    David, document three such cases, please.

    You’ve made unsubstantiated assertions before, sir. When called for evidence, you demur. Methinks it’s a pattern.

  12. Comment by No eyes to see on May 26, 2020 at 11:25 am

    Diane,

    I am so sorry for you that you cannot separate two different issues from each other because of the political and social blinders you wear. I am not perfect either, but your blindness to reality is sad to see.

    It is also so sad to note that your blindness seems to be very common among people who hold to your position. For years now your side of the debate regularly labels those of us that disagree with you as less than Christian and evil. Now its to the point where anything we say or do is evil.

    Have a good day, after reading your post I won’t.

  13. Comment by Gary Bebop on May 26, 2020 at 4:13 pm

    Mainline denominations not only publicly support extreme shutdown measures to control the virus but have closed their own churches by ecclesial order to collaborate. Local mainline churches are not free to open up their doors if their hierarchs have declared otherwise. The United Methodist bishop is my region has demanded absolute acquiescence on this point. Free and voluntary experience is being suborned and subordinated by arbitrary regulation. But who will accept such soul-shrinking and regimentation of the spiritual life? This outrageous Gleischaltung will be spurned by many contrarians.

  14. Comment by td on May 26, 2020 at 9:04 pm

    The issue isn’t whether the virus can spread when a church gathers or whether churches have a constitutional right to assemble. The issue is whether a church gathering is essential.

    As a christian, i believe that a church gathering is essential. Restaurants are allowed to be open, and they are quite obviously not essential. By these standards, it makes no sense that a church can not gather.

  15. Comment by L. Cary on June 4, 2020 at 6:50 am

    The Church in America caved to the State and shutdown. The clergy collectively showed weakness.

    Social distancing in routinely half-empty sanctuaries could have been maintained. More worship services scheduled, if necessary, to accommodate all. But the clergy folded like, as they say, a cheap (unisex) suit.

    The cave commenced long ago. “The danger to Christianity was augmented when the state made its peach with the Church” (beginning with Constantine). Kenneth Scott LaTourette, “A History of Christianity,” p. 262. (Whose son-in-law, Richey Hogg, taught Christian History at the Perkins School of Theology, SMU, for decades.)

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