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Stay-at-home orders to limit the spread of the coronavirus have been issued by governors in all but a handful of states. These orders have presented difficult decisions for lawmakers as they decide which places should be designated as essential and allowed to remain open. Perhaps the most contentious debate has been around whether places of worship, such as churches, mosques and synagogues, should be forced to close.
More than a dozen governors have included exemptions in their orders for religious gatherings, though some of them limit the number of attendees and mandate social distancing. The majority of religious leaders have complied, either by holding small services or switching to online worship. But some have defied restrictions by continuing to hold regular services to packed crowds.
Law enforcement officials in a number of states have intervened. An evangelical Christian pastor in Florida was arrested for continuing to hold large services last week. The state’s governor later issued a stay-at-home order that included an exemption for religious gatherings with no limitations on crowd size.
Why there’s debate
Advocates for closing all places of worship during the pandemic say public health takes precedence over First Amendment freedoms at the moment. Large crowds of any kind should be banned, they say, but there’s also evidence that religious gatherings can be particularly dangerous. Coronavirus clusters in Washington, California and several other states have been directly linked back to religious gatherings.
Many religious leaders make the case that physical attendance is not necessary to practice one’s faith and point to online services as a high-quality alternative. Legal analysts say closing places of worship does not violate freedom of religion as laid out in the First Amendment in the specific case of the pandemic.
A vocal group of faith leaders and congregants argue that religion is an essential part of their lives, and the freedom to practice as they see fit — even if it puts them at risk — supersedes public health orders. Others support allowing small religious gatherings that adhere to social distancing, rather than complete bans. Places of worship serve an important role beyond religious services in many communities, some argue. If permitted to safely stay open, they could serve as critical points of support for people with health or economic needs. There are also concerns that some churches, synagogues and mosques, like many other businesses, may not endure financially if forced to close for extended periods.
Orders that force religious institutions to close completely may backfire, some argue, by creating an adversarial stance between religion and government that stokes fears of persecution.
Faith isn’t about a physical location
“When our diocese and our church made the difficult decision to close our church building, we began living into a truth we have long proclaimed: the church is not a building. It is a community of people.” — Rev. Leslie Hague, South Florida Sun Sentinel
Religious gatherings are uniquely dangerous
“In this time of chaos, uncertainty, and gloom, faith and religious gatherings can provide peace, purpose, and fellowship. However, it is for these reasons that church, and religious gatherings in general, are among the highest risk venues, as otherwise isolated older adults come into close contact with socially active younger adults and children who may carry the coronavirus asymptomatically.” — Eugenia C. South and M. Kit Delgado, Philadelphia Inquirer
Defying stay-at-home orders will hurt public perception of religious people
“Even if we do practice stringent hygiene and social distancing, coming together as congregations in the face of this pandemic actually mars our witness. Rather than looking courageous and faithful, we come off looking callous and even foolish.” — Daniel Harrell, Christianity Today
Leaders who refuse to shut down should face legal consequences
“Good pastors protect their flocks. Pastors who willfully expose their congregations to this deadly virus do not deserve the title. Church leaders who insist on putting lives at risk should be jailed.” — Editorial, Sacramento Bee
Lawmakers shouldn’t let political considerations weigh their decisions
“No individual's religious freedom should be able to threaten public health, and certainly not because those who prioritize religious freedom tend to vote Republican.” — Candida Moss, CNN
Orders closing places of worship are on sound legal ground
“As a matter of public health, churches should follow these prohibitions. But as a legal matter, must they? The short answer is that in this case, government restrictions extending to churches are almost certainly legal.” — John Inazu, Atlantic
Forcing authorities to intervene is bad for everyone
“A church-state confrontation like this is disturbing and potentially dangerous. There is a simple way for churches to avoid it: Quit endangering your flocks by flouting these necessary restrictions.” — Laurie Skrivan, St. Louis Post-Dispatch
Religious leaders should be trusted to make the right decision
“Most governors have rightly avoided issuing orders closing down worship services, instead relying on religious leaders to convey the necessity of social distancing to their congregants. In response, faith leaders have nearly all done what is best for their communities, canceling in-person worship services during the pandemic.” — Editorial, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Religious freedom should be protected
“Officials should not mistake this cooperation for the notion that the free exercise of religion is a right of convenience or a luxury only enjoyed during good times. It’s a fundamental right, necessary to our nation’s life and health, which is why our Constitution’s framers carved out special protections for religion and freedom for churches and synagogues.” — Kristen Waggoner, New York Daily News
Places of worship are important support systems in many communities
“Recent Sunday mornings have reminded us that congregations remain arguably the most common source of what scholars call ‘social capital,’ or the networks of relationships that people need for support in times of trouble.” — Byron R. Johnson and Thomas S. Kidd, Dallas Morning News
Places of worship have historically stayed open during plagues
“We don’t cancel church. The whole motivation of personal sacrifice to care for others, and other-regarding measures to reduce infection, presupposes the existence of a community in which we’re all stakeholders. Even as we take communion from separate plates and cups to minimize risk, forgo hand-shaking or hugging, and sit at a distance from each other, we still commune.” — Lyman Stone, Foreign Policy
Mandatory closures could make the faithful fear their freedoms are being stomped on
“That some have reacted with skepticism toward such requests reveals an understandable apprehension that, because of the increased hostility toward religion in recent years, relenting even for a pandemic might sacrifice such a precious freedom permanently.” — R. Albert Mohler Jr. and Kelly J. Shackelford, Washington Post
The financial cost of closures will be significant
“This year Easter is entering a virtual reality that may hurt some churches financially.” — Georeen Tanner, Fox News
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