When a Florida pastor, who had been arrested for holding a church service despite local coronavirus restrictions, complained he was the victim of “a tyrannical government”, Ron DeSantis, the state’s Republican governor, was listening.
In executive orders issued in quick succession this week, DeSantis designated religious services as “essential activities”. Then he swept away the right of cities and counties to ban them.
“I don’t think the government has the authority to close a church. I’m certainly not going to do that,” DeSantis said. “In Easter season, people are going to want to have access to religious services.”
This, however, was no municipality-versus-state power struggle. A concerted effort to protect religious freedoms is playing out across the country in the face of the coronavirus pandemic, frustrating efforts by public health officials to enforce social distancing per federal guidelines and slow the spread of the deadly virus.
In almost all of the states that lead the nation in numbers of cases, and which have issued blanket stay-at-home orders, there are specific exemptions for religious gatherings or acts of worship, a survey by the Guardian of published regulations and media coverage found.
In others with definitive lists of non-essential businesses or activities ordered to close, churches, synagogues, mosques, temples and other houses of faith are not among them.
What isn’t clear is how many people are still attending services, or how many are taking place. Leaders of many of the largest religions by followers in the US, including Mormonism, Catholicism, Islam and various denominations of Judaism, have closed houses of worship and are urging services take place online.
“This decision comes out of sacrificial love, not from habitual or casual disregard for worship,” the leaders of Christianity Today and the National Association of Evangelicals said in a joint statement.
“We will not be passing the peace with hugs, but rather with texts and phone calls. Are these modes inferior? Yes. Will they be acceptable to the Lord? We also believe, yes.”
But there is a growing backlash, likely to be fuelled by the intervention of political leaders such as DeSantis, and Greg Abbott, the governor of Texas, who this week signed his own executive order designating religious services as “essential” and leaving houses of worship to make their own decisions while urging them to work remotely.
An open letter to Catholic bishops calling for public mass and access to the holy sacraments is gaining traction online, pushed by a newly-formed group of theologians and ministers calling itself the Easter People.
“Something is terribly wrong with a culture that allows abortion clinics and liquor stores to remain open but shuts down places of worship,” the group said.
Other than Texas and Florida, states that have issued exemptions for religious events and with large numbers of coronavirus cases or significant populations of older people include Delaware, Louisiana, Michigan, Mississippi, New Hampshire, Tennessee and West Virginia. The homepage for executive orders signed by the Michigan governor, Gretchen Whitmer, includes the words: “A place of religious worship is not subject to penalty.”
The Center for American Progress, a progressive public policy research group, published its own study of states it found to have enacted exemptions to stay-at-home orders on religious grounds, describing it as “an alarming trend”.
According to the group, Pennsylvania was the first to move, on 19 March when it enacted a clause that exempts the “operations of religious institutions” from its closure order on physical premises of “non-life sustaining businesses”.
Over the next five days, five more states – New York, New Jersey, Delaware, Louisiana, Ohio, Massachusetts, Michigan, New Mexico, West Virginia and Kansas – acted by including religious exemptions to varying degrees. For example, New Mexico banned gatherings of more than five people anywhere, with “churches, synagogues, mosques and other places of worship” among the exceptions. West Virginia’s order, meanwhile, adds specific wording to assure citizens that travel to and from a place of worship would also not be considered a violation.
The fact that religious groups can still hold gatherings in so many states does not mean all of them will do so. But there are prominent exceptions, such as the Florida pastor Rodney Howard-Browne, who has now decided to shutter his River at Tampa Bay church for this weekend’s Palm Sunday services anyway, and the Life Tabernacle church in Louisiana. Dozens of cases of coronavirus have been reported at a California megachurch.
“The ability to gather as people of faith is our first freedom. But as with other freedoms now cabined in the name of public safety, religious freedom must take a backseat, at least for now,” is the view of an editorial by three Canopy analysts, Robin Fretwell Wilson, Brian Smith and Tanner Bean.
“Now is not the time to stand on our rights. It is not the time to pursue contentious religious freedom claims in the courthouse. Instead, it is a time to lead by example, as so many congregations and people of faith have done.”