The COVID-19 pandemic is a public health crisis unparalleled in modern history. On the advice of health officials, social distancing measures have proven to be effective in containing viral outbreaks. As COVID-19 poses an immediate threat to communities across the country, compliance is vital now more than ever.
Across the country religious organizations, including houses of worship, are struggling to strike a balance between religious expression and public health. A small number have resisted restrictions on in-person gatherings altogether, placing themselves and their communities at risk.
Keeping Faith with Adapted Worship
Public health measures have been instrumental in limiting the spread of COVID-19. These measures, including limits on in-person gatherings, are necessary to protect the general public. The coronavirus does not distinguish one type of gathering from another, creating opportunities for the illness to spread among attendees. To respond effectively, neither should state and local governments.
This means that social distancing restrictions must be applied consistently to all types of activities. When religious groups refuse to comply or receive special exemptions from these guidelines, they put attendees at risk and open the community to a potential outbreak. Equitable restrictions mitigate the risk of exposure, lessening the burden placed on local healthcare providers and lowering the possible loss of life.
But a handful of religious leaders have likened these restrictions to “persecution,” even as their colleagues adapt to virtual observances. These outliers cite the First Amendment – including the right of religious freedom – despite profound risk to public health.
These freedoms, however, are not unlimited. The right to religious freedom protects personal religious expression and practice, so long as one does not harm others. And constitutional law offers a well established test for determining when the government has gone too far in infringing on fundamental rights. Under the strict scrutiny standard, the government must show that its actions advance a compelling interest – for instance, limiting the spread of a deadly pandemic – and the measures adopted are the least restrictive means to accomplish that goal. Since the coronavirus spreads through interpersonal contact, restrictions on large gatherings are precisely the means necessary to slow the spread.
In the case of emergency social distancing measures, state and local governments are acting appropriately by restricting religious gatherings – and all other large convenings – to protect the safety of the general public.
A Call for Equal Application
The U.S. Department of Justice addressed some of these concerns in a statement on April 14, 2020, addressing religious practice and social distancing. In it, Attorney General Bill Barr called for equal application of public health restrictions on religious and secular activities, requiring all places that generally host large groups to assume responsibility for the health of their communities. Religious organizations cannot be singled out for enforcement when non-religious entities are not.
Examples of these incidents are limited, but the Attorney General’s statement comes after the Department of Justice filed a Statement of Interest in support of a Greenville, Mississippi, church whose parishioners were fined $500 for attending a parking lot worship service. During the service, attendees remained inside their vehicles with the windows up, listening to the sermon via radio broadcast. The Department’s statement makes several important distinctions that lend clarity to the current struggle to balance the interests of faith communities and the government’s compelling interest in protecting those vulnerable to the virus.
Moving Forward Together
In the past the Attorney General has advanced a hardline approach to religious freedom issues, including inflammatory remarks about “militant secularists” in January. But the April 14th statement offers a measured approach to a confounding aspect of the current crisis.
As a national interfaith organization, bringing together followers of over 75 different faith traditions and philosophies, we applaud the efforts of religious organizations who have adapted their worship practices to keep attendees safe. Physical distancing restrictions can put significant spiritual and operational strain on faith communities and the dedicated individuals who lead them. But the simple fact is that restricting large assemblies, religious or otherwise, will save lives.
Protecting the most vulnerable among us is a value shared by every faith tradition. Organizations that seek to bypass public health measures distort the meaning of religious freedom and endanger not just their congregations, but service workers, healthcare professionals, and at-risk members of the community.
It is our hope that the argument presented by Attorney General Barr will not be misused by religious organizations to seek special treatment over other places of assembly. We ask the Department of Justice to support leaders who enforce restrictions fairly and hold accountable those who defy them. The actions that we take now will impact the outcome of the current crisis, and will define our commitment to our constitutional principles.
Learn more about our call to action during the coronavirus pandemic.