Religious Freedom in the Time of Coronavirus

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On March 2, Bill de Blasio encouraged New Yorkers “to go on with your lives.”  The mayor of America’s largest city went so far as to offer specific suggestions on which films they should go see. Well into the second week of the month, when other big cities were banning gatherings and President Trump suspended travel to the U.S. from Europe, de Blasio continued to push the idea that business-as-usual was the best response to the emerging coronavirus epidemic. He resisted a push to shut down public schools so strongly that top aides launched a revolt.

Just days later, de Blasio, whose Democratic bid for president last year never found its footing, was castigating President Trump for failing to lift a finger “for his hometown.”

“I can’t be blunt enough,” the mayor said on “Meet the Press.” “If the president doesn’t act, people will die who would have lived otherwise.”

Barely two weeks had passed since he telegraphed his rare subway ride as a model for calming coronavirus misconceptions and fears. In another turn-around, on Sunday the mayor threatened that police would pull riders from crowded subway cars if they weren’t social distancing.

But de Blasio’s latest efforts to play catch-up has implications far beyond the New City metro area and will likely linger beyond the COVID-19 crisis. It’s sparked a national debate over the separation of church and state and the fundamental First Amendment guarantee that Americans shall have the right to free exercise of worship.

Speaking to city residents on Friday, the mayor issued a stern warning to religious leaders that he had ordered police to shut down services involving more than 10 people. If those participating refused, he promised fines, and then took it a step further, threatening to “permanently” halt the religious institutions’ ability to gather.

“I don’t say that with any joy,” said de Blasio, who was raised Catholic but now doesn’t belong to a church and prefers to call himself “spiritual” rather than religious. “It’s the last thing I would like to do, because I understand how important people’s faiths are to them, and we need our faith in this time of crisis. But we do not need gatherings that will endanger people.”

“Everyone has been instructed that if they see worship services going on, they will go to the officials of that congregation and inform them that they need to stop the services and disperse,” he continued. “If that does not happen, they will take additional action up to the point of fines and potentially closing the building permanently. Again, that will begin this weekend.”

It wasn’t so much the ban on religious gatherings that bothered spiritual leaders. Most churches, synagogues and mosques were already abiding by similar rules aimed at flattening the pandemic curve put in place across the nation. But the threat of closing down churches and other religious groups forever sparked the biggest backlash.

The First Liberty Institute, a conservative organization focused on protecting Americans’ ability to practice the religion of their choice, said de Blasio’s statement crossed the line from protecting people in a pandemic to totalitarian action against churches and religious institutions. The group had earlier issued a memo asserting that churches should comply with government guidance against group gatherings while continuing to serve their communities as long as the rules are temporary and evenly applied to other large gatherings. The guidance was based on U.S. Supreme Court rulings clarifying that governments can never target or specifically disfavor religious entities.

“The American people will tolerate a lot during a national pandemic,” First Liberty said in a statement. “They will not tolerate government threats to permanently close houses of worship. Such careless talk by Major De Blasio harms the ability of church and state to work together.”

Other well-known religious leaders and Christian authors weighed in.

“Mayor de Blasio, you have overstepped your bounds,” declared an op-ed in the Christian Post.

“While I agree that churches & synagogues need to stay closed during this crisis, @NYCMayor De Blasio has radically overreached here,” tweeted Joel C. Rosenberg, an evangelical Christian and best-selling novelist. “No government official should threaten to close churches and synagogues permanently.”

The Family Research Council labeled de Blasio’s directive “completely disproportionate – not to mention … unconstitutional.” Kristen Waggoner of the Alliance Defending Freedom pointed out that most churches have willingly cooperated with federal , state and local government to slow the spread of the virus, but officials shouldn’t mistake the cooperation for the notion that the free exercise of religion is a “right of convenience or luxury enjoyed during good times.”

But Bill de Blasio’s authoritarian impulses were not unique. In Virginia, Gov. Ralph Northam issued an edict making it a crime to hold a church service with more than 10 people. Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer banned large gatherings, including those at churches and religious institutions, and then went further, threatening “administrative actions” against doctors who prescribed the malaria drug hydroxychloroquine sulfate (which President Trump has cited as a “potential game changer” in treating coronavirus).

There have been a few well-publicized exceptions to prohibitions on religious gatherings in Louisiana, Ohio and Florida, where congregants of megachurches have attended services in defiance of state orders. And a Pennsylvania pastor made headlines Tuesday for promising to organize an outdoor “Woodstock”-like church service in protest of stay-at-home orders, placing participants at risk for spreading or catching COVID19. But even he seemed to be planning the splashy act of defiance because so many other pastors weren’t.

“I’m not ashamed that [a Florida pastor] got arrested. I’m ashamed that when they wanted to arrest preachers for having church, in an entire state, there was only one to come for,” the preacher, evangelist Jonah Shuttlesworth, told the media.

A sheriff who arrested the Tampa pastor held a news conference after the incident. He said the large Sunday service, where congregants were seen crowded shoulder to shoulder, showed “reckless disregard for human life” and put hundreds of people in the congregation at risk and thousands of residents who may interact with them this week in danger.

But those were the outliers. The vast majority of religious institutions across the country have fallen in line, offering virtual service alternatives and only mild criticism of the some of the harshest state bans on church gatherings.

Even after Northam’s heavy-handed edict, Catholic Vote, a conservative Catholic nonprofit political advocacy group, pressed him respectfully to revise it to allow “small responsible gatherings practicing social distancing requirements to pray for an end of this pandemic and for the health and safety of the vulnerable.”

“Treating responsible Americans gathered to pray as criminals is unnecessary and excessive,” the group tweeted.

Northam, already reviled by Catholic officials  and conservative evangelicals for his support for loosening laws on late-term abortions, ignored the request, opting Monday to extend the ban on church gatherings of more than 10, along with his stay-at-home order for most commonwealth citizens, until June 10.

The governor also ordered all higher education institutions in the state, including private colleges, to stop in-person instruction, a move seemingly aimed at Liberty University, the evangelical college in Lynchburg led by Jerry Falwell Jr. The school has faced fierce criticism over its decision to welcome students back last week after its spring break.

The vast majority of classes have moved back online, but the school said publicly that in-person instruction was necessary for a few select courses. But another Democratic governor recalibrated somewhat. In Michigan, Whitmer not only reversed course on hydroxychloroquine sulfate -- she asked the federal government for shipments of the drugs – she also modulated her own order banning large gatherings, excluding religious groups from any penalties after state House Speaker Lee Chatfield conveyed his concerns about the penalties to Whitmer.

(Catholic dioceses throughout the state and several other denominations had already voluntarily complied, suspending public Masses and services through the end of April.)

In an interview with “Fox News Sunday” anchor John Roberts, Whitmer explained that while she was greatly discouraging religious gatherings in light of the pandemic, she didn’t believe the government had the right to order churches to close.

“Well, you know, the separation of church and state, and the Republican legislature asked me to clarify that,” explained Whitmer. “That's an area that we don't have the ability to directly enforce and control. We are encouraging people, though: Do not congregate.”

Chatfield, a Republican, took to Facebook to thank the governor for listening.

"People have a God-given right to assemble and worship, and that right is secured by both the United States and Michigan Constitution. While I do not think that that right can be taken away by an executive order, I believe that as Christians we also have a duty to love our fellow man and play our role within society," stated Chatfield. 

"At times, we cancel services because the meteorologist predicts inclement weather. Why do we do this? Because we want people to stay safe.”

Susan Crabtree is RealClearPolitics' White House/national political correspondent.



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