Americans treasure not only the “free exercise” of religion but also the “right of the people peaceably to assemble” as articulated in the First Amendment and practiced with minimal interruption since our nation’s founding. When asked to curtail any part of it — even temporarily — Americans’ skepticism reveals just how treasured religious freedom remains and the enduring vigilance with which they maintain it.
Most people are willing to tolerate temporary restrictions on even our most treasured liberties if it means demonstrating love for neighbor in a time of crisis. Of course, the key to that tolerance is that the restrictions be both temporary and necessary.
Careless comments by New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, for instance, threatening the permanent closure of houses of worship do little to help. Neither do reports of pastors facing arrest for dogmatically defying health officials’ repeated requests to temporarily suspend their meetings. Likewise unhelpful are imprecisely drafted orders that leave religious leaders wondering whether and how they can serve their congregations.
Still, it is government’s responsibility, in the defense of public health, to respect those rights articulated in the Constitution. The corresponding role of the church is to demonstrate love for God and neighbor by respecting the authority of the state when it requests we forgo, just temporarily, the assembly of the saints until it is once more safe to gather again.
Religious liberty faces genuine challenges and threats from the secularization of our culture and the hostility toward religion often expressed by political elites. That some have reacted with skepticism toward such requests reveals an understandable apprehension that, because of the increased hostility toward religion in recent years, relenting even for a pandemic might sacrifice such a precious freedom permanently. On the other side of this pandemic, governments will bear the responsibility to respect and protect all of our cherished rights in full — as quickly as possible.
Still, asking houses of worship to briefly suspend large gatherings is neither hostile toward religion nor unreasonable in light of the threat. Rather, this is a time for all of us to exercise prudence over defiance. Love for God and neighbor demands nothing less.
Nonetheless, the authority of the state cannot escape the thoughtful limitations of the Constitution. As the courts have explained, when the interest is sufficiently compelling, government may temporarily curb the free exercise of religion. Every court in the country would agree that curbing the spread of a worldwide pandemic is sufficiently compelling to merit government orders limiting the gathering of Americans in large groups. So long as those restrictions are applied temporarily and fairly, we see no reason, morally or legally, that Americans should balk. But churches and religious institutions cannot be singled out.
Of course, some difficulty comes in application. For instance, city officials in McKinney, Tex., imposed restrictions last month that allowed restaurants to remain open, serving patrons through pick-up and drive-through service, while churches were limited to 10 or fewer staffers. Such imprecision could have prevented local churches from distributing food to the needy, using the same methods of a restaurant’s pick-up service, though staff at any organization could be at risk for infection. After First Liberty Institute sent a letter pointing out the inequity, city officials quickly made adjustments.
To those anxious about the future of religious liberty, such stories ought to lend encouragement. Mistakes will be made. Overreach must be addressed. But the ideal will hold on the other side of this crisis.
Let us also remember the example of history. In 1918, the Rev. I. Cochrane Hunt, a Presbyterian minister facing public health orders to stay home during the flu pandemic, told the Cincinnati Inquirer: “I believe the action of the authorities in prohibiting public gatherings was a wise move, and they should be indorsed [sic] and assisted by the entire public in stamping out [this] disease.” Bishop Ferdinand Brossart informed his diocese by letter that they ought to strictly comply and “pray that the impending plague may be averted.”
Let us do likewise.
Church and state should work together to exercise prudence in the face of this contagion. At a time when people are scared to the point of hoarding, let our churches be known for the ministry and support they uniquely provide: care, comfort and calm. And may the government continue to protect the health and safety of citizens. May it do that well.
At this crucial moment, the issues we face are not merely constitutional: They are matters of life and death.