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Keeping Churches Open Will Damn Us All

April 2, 2020

The American obsession with giving privilege to religion is rearing its head in these times of global pandemics and mandatory social distancing. As more and more states (39 at the current count) have implemented stay-at-home orders, a dangerous number of them have excluded houses of worship and religious services from their restrictions.

Let one thing be eminently clear. There is nothing about the walls of a church or synagogue, temple or mosque, that prevents the spread of the novel coronavirus to those gathering within it. There is nothing a priest or minister can say, no magic words he can intone, that will protect his flock from catching this virus. There is, to this point, one thing we really do know—staying away from one another as much as possible is our only defense, the only way of restricting the spread of COVID-19 to give our health care system a fighting chance.

Religious groups seeking and being granted exemptions from laws they find inconvenient is, alas, nothing new. CFI is currently drafting an amicus brief for the Supreme Court for the case of Trump v. Pennsylvania, the latest incarnation of the efforts of religious groups to refuse to permit their employees to access co-pay free insurance for contraceptives, as guaranteed by the Affordable Care Act. Religious groups and individuals seek exemptions from bans on using illegal drugs, from civil rights laws protecting the LGBTQ community, and from laws requiring them to vaccinate—or give any medical treatment to—their children. They all too often receive these exemptions, despite our arguments that the Establishment Clause clearly prevents special treatment being handed out to religion in this fashion.

The harm here is more direct, more obvious, and even less understandable. When people gather in large numbers for religious services, the virus spreads. Of the 80 attendees at a Pentecostal Revival in Illinois two weeks ago, 43 are sick. Over 60% of the infected individuals in South Korea at the beginning of March were members of a fringe sect, the Shincheonji Church of Jesus, which refused to cooperate with the government, keeping its membership rolls secret, thereby allowing the virus to spread. It’s not just the church members who go to a service who are at risk, of course. It’s their families, the workers they come into contact with at the pharmacy or supermarket, and then all the people those newly infected meet.

Out of the 39 states with stay-at-home orders, at least 11 have some kind of special treatment for religious groups built into the executive orders. Arizona and Delaware exempt religious activities along with other first amendment related activities. Wisconsin exempts religious services if attended by fewer than ten people. Colorado, Kentucky, Texas, and West Virginia allow religious gatherings but require them to follow social distancing practices. Michigan exempts religious groups from any penalties for breaking the rules, and CFI has already requested that the governor reverse this. Florida (it’s always Florida), New Mexico, North Carolina, and Pennsylvania have just simply excluded houses of worship from their restrictions.

This kind of privileging of religion is not only unconstitutional, it’s patently ridiculous, and dangerous for everyone in society. This will kill people. There is no constitutional requirement to do this, despite what some religious pressure groups have bullied governors into saying. If you can close down public meetings and gatherings under emergency powers, you can close down public religious meetings and gatherings. To say otherwise is to give special rights to religion, and those special rights are deadly in the current situation.

It simply isn’t enough for states to allow services to continue with appropriate social distancing. If a bar, or a movie theater, or even a political meeting cannot be trusted to continue operation and self-enforce social distancing, why should a church be treated differently? Does anyone think this will be enforced? Will Texas Rangers be visiting churches with measuring tapes and, like nuns at a Catholic school dance, ensuring there is space for the Holy Spirit between participants? These rules will simply be ignored, and the outbreak will continue to gather speed at a terrifying rate.

Of course, where religious services have been held to the same standard as everyone else in society, the religious response has been the same—to sue. Pastors in Texas filed suit against Harris County seeking a religious freedom exemption to bring their congregations together to act as petri dishes. They say you can judge people by the company they keep—also playing the coronavirus legal lottery are the NRA, claiming California gun stores are essential businesses.

Meanwhile, religious conservatives are using the pandemic and stay-at-home orders to further restrict access to abortion, claiming it is not an essential procedure. State after state is shuttering abortion clinics, and the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals is allowing them to do so

This pandemic isn’t there to be used for political gain, and it knows no boundaries based on race, gender, or religion. Allowing churches to remain open hamstrings our efforts to protect society. It’s shameless pandering to a religious minority who has shown time and time again they don’t care about anyone in society but themselves. The majority of houses of worship are doing the right thing, and shuttering their doors like other people. Let’s not grant the extreme fringe, like Florida Pastor Rodney Howard-Browne license to jeopardize the health and safety of the rest of us, just so he can keep the donation basket full.