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Churchgoers, stay home

| Wednesday, April 15, 2020

The difficulties in containing the spread of coronavirus has raised legitimate concerns across the nation. When will this be over? How long until we can return to our jobs or schools? Is social distancing the new norm? Many Americans have turned to faith as a steady rock, and this could not have come at a better time. Last week hosted the celebration of Passover and Easter, and Muslims are preparing for Ramadan in the coming week. However, these celebrations are accompanied by empty houses of worship. Twenty-nine states have enacted bans on social gatherings, including religious services. Recently, Vice President Mike Pence urged Americans to not attend worship services with more than 10 people. 

While it may seem reasonable to ban in-person services, religious institutions have cried foul. Some churches are still hosting services, with business as usual. Meanwhile, many lawmakers have criticized the ban on religious services. Although the bans were meant to mitigate the spread of coronavirus, many claim a violation of their First Amendment rights. This has led to a number of lawsuits over the authority of state governments to limit religious gatherings. 

As of now, 12 states have carved out religious exemptions in their stay-at-home orders. These exemptions arise from a concern about the separation of church and state. Religious freedom is a sacred right in the United States. A Florida pastor arrested for hosting in-person services claimed his First Amendment rights were being violated, as religious institutions were being discriminated against. Concerns over respecting one’s right to worship is important, even during a global health crisis. At the same time, there is justification to the government limiting religious worship during an epidemic. This issue requires a constitutional analysis of the government’s ability to limit religious expression. 

Luckily, the law provides some guidance on this predicament. The Supreme Court case Wisconsin v. Yoder found that “unduly burdens” on religious expression must be justified with a “compelling interest” by the government to be considered constitutional. So, the government can limit religious expression if it has a good reason. A global health crisis would seem to suffice that mandate. State governments have a compelling interest in protecting public health by limiting social gatherings. This is already seen for secular institutions, such as non-essential services shutting down. The nonprofit advocacy group Americans United for Separation of Church and State supports this view, claiming that religious institutions should be held to the same standard as secular ones. The implications of coronavirus require a ban on religious gatherings. 

At the same time, the free exercise of religion is still allowed. Attorney Jonathan Turley explains a key part of our constitutional review should be if religious worship is “truly being denied.” Obviously, there is a curtailment on religious worship when one cannot enter his synagogue. Congregating together as a community is an important part of many religions. However, worship is still accessible through at-home methods and the online services many religious institutions are hosting. Similarly, exercising religion does not allow dangerous acts. Just as churches can be shut down for a fire safety threat, a global pandemic is a justifiable reason to limit religious gatherings. Thus, we see that religious worship is not being denied. People are not being persecuted for practicing a particular faith, and the government is not showing any bias towards specific religions. 

However, there is some nuance to this answer. Some religions are experiencing a severe denial of the right to worship. Orthodox Jews are unable to use electricity during Shabbat, restricting the ability to participate in worship. Nevertheless, there is no constitutional right to disobey laws that were enacted without an intent to discriminate against religions. Unless someone can show state governments had a specific motive to limit the practice of certain religions, the ban must be respected. Still, the nuance of this issue will require deeper analysis in the court system. 

Thus, one should see that pastors and religious leaders continuing to host services across the country have no claim to constitutionality and are actively putting the community at risk. The Kansas Supreme Court ruled in favor of the ban, showing that limiting religious worship during this time is constitutional. A ban on in-person worship is as justifiable as a ban on movie theaters during a time of crisis. The severity of coronavirus and the necessity to curtail its spread requires a massive effort to limit social interaction, and that includes religious worship. Individuals have the right to freely assemble, but there is no case being made that this is being violated despite the bans on social gatherings. Why would the free exercise of religion be any different?

Nevertheless, there is one interesting aspect of this issue that could go in favor of religious institutions. Many places of worship have begun hosting drive-in services, where members stay in their vehicles to attend services. Kentucky and Mississippi have banned these practices, citing similar reasons mentioned above. However, the Department of Justice has stated it is looking into this issue, as it believes that religious institutions are being compliant with social distancing rules. In fact, the DOJ has suggested that the bans are unconstitutional because religious services are happening in a way that does not endanger the public’s health. This issue will likely play itself out in court, and its decision will likely have an impact in how religious worship occurs going forward. 

We must all participate in a collective effort to protect our communities during this pandemic. However, at the same time, we must ensure that our rights are being respected and the proper guidelines followed. Constitutional review is an important part of our nation, as it outlines the rights of each citizen and the boundaries of the government. Extenuating circumstances should not justify the violations of our rights, but they do allow a certain curtailment in the name of public health. 

Blake Ziegler is a freshman at Notre Dame from New Orleans, Louisiana, with double majors in political science and philosophy. He hopes his writing encourages others to take an interest in politics and government. For inquiries, he can be reached at [email protected] or @NewsWithZig on Twitter.


The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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