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.