Religious Liberty in the Time of COVID-19 - July 24, 2020
In the middle of March 2020, all life seemingly came to a grinding halt. Sports leagues postponed their seasons. Restaurants and stores were shuttered, throwing millions out of work. Weddings were postponed or limited to just the minister, bride, groom, and two witnesses. Congested freeways suddenly became wide-open expressways. And churches were forced to halt their worship services. All of this was done in the name of public health – to stop the spread of the COVID-19 virus that had cut a deadly swath through Asia and Europe before reaching our shores.
First, churches were told gatherings of more than 50 people were out. Then the number was reduced to 10. All of this was done for physical distancing to keep the virus from spreading. Churches complied with all of this, understanding the critical need to do their part for the physical welfare of others.
But unfortunately, there were some who have exploited the COVID-19 pandemic and used it as an opportunity to keep churches closed while other public places, such as restaurants, stores, and casinos were gradually allowed to open. This is not to even to say about the throngs of individuals who marched through the streets – and not engaging in physical distancing at all – to protest the tragic death of George Floyd, encouraged by many of the same officials who advocated denying ordinary Americans the opportunity to gather together and worship. It seemed like only churches were being targeted for closure. In doing so, these officials denied Americans of one of their most cherished fundamental freedoms: religious liberty.
This exploitation comes at a time when there is an increasing clampdown on personal freedom and calls for greater government control in all aspects of our lives – particularly our faith lives.
For instance, in Nevada, the governor has allowed casinos to open, while keeping the churches shut. In Mississippi, congregants who were practicing physical distancing by keeping in their cars and attending drive-in services were issued $500 fines. In Oregon, pastors faced fines of $1,250 and up to 30 days in jail if more than 25 people showed up at their church for services, even though the church practiced physical distancing and observed all safety protocols. Yet the same group could go out for Sunday brunch at a local restaurant without fear of government officials shutting their doors and dragging their pastor off to jail.
The result is what Attorney General William Barr recently warned us about in his speech on religious freedom at the University of Notre Dame, when he said, “If you rely upon the coercive power of government to impose restraints [on faith], this will inevitably lead to a government that is too controlling, and you end up with no liberty, just tyranny.”
Thankfully, organizations such as Alliance Defending Freedom have been challenging these unconstitutional actions by state and local officials, and thus far, have been successful in every instance.
But these skirmishes ultimately come down to a battle of two sides, which my co-author Craig Osten and I write about in our book, American Restoration: How Faith, Family, and Personal Sacrifice Can Heal Our Nation. One side believes that people have a fundamental right protected by the First Amendment to practice their faith freely and openly in society. The second believe religious freedom is not a fundamental right and any public expression should be discouraged. It is this second view that we are seeing played out in the public square, as money-making businesses are perceived as more “vital” to society than churches. COVID-19 has just brought into the open what has been going on behind the scenes for years as churches face more and more obstacles to simply exist.
These obstacles have included onerous zoning ordinances and building codes to keep churches out of business districts or expanding their facilities, attempts to make churches comply with sexual orientation and gender identity (SOGI) laws that violate their core biblical beliefs about human sexuality if they allow community groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous or the Scouts to use their facilities, and so forth.
While we all understand that personal and corporate sacrifice is needed in time of emergency, it has also been during these times that houses of worship have brought people together in unity. Think of the overflowing churches and synagogues on D-Day after President Roosevelt called the nation to pray for the brave soldiers storming the beaches of Normandy or how people turned back to faith after the tragic events of September 11, 2001. Could much for the division we face in our nation, and particularly during these especially turbulent times, be tied to the fact that people are discouraged from getting together with others to pray, worship, and development community than encouraged? Most definitely so.
Leaders such as Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt, Dwight Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, and those who founded our nation, knew the important role faith played in standing up to and defeating tyranny. While they may not have been perfect men, they knew what our nation’s guiding star must be. That is why we cannot stand by and let those who want to take advantage of this pandemic to continue locking the sanctuary doors. We cannot let a short-term public health crisis become a long-term health crisis for the human soul. It is time for churches to once again be allowed to allow people to practice their faith, while making sure that none are at risk. Religious freedom and physical distancing can co-exist, and everyone’s freedoms and health can be protected.
Tim Goeglein is vice-president of External Relations for Focus on the Family.
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“Strengthen Your Church, O Lord, that she may be a beacon of joyous unity in the Gospel and a light of blessed forgiveness and grace, calling all to repentance and to trust in Jesus as the only Savior from sin (Acts 2:38–41). Amen.”
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