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Opinion In-person church services right now are an affront to public health — and morality

Pastor Nicolas Sanchez is seen on the iPhone used to live-stream the Easter Vigil Mass at St. Patrick Church in North Hollywood, Calif., on April 11. (Damian Dovarganes/AP)

THE CONSTITUTION’S First Amendment confers religious liberty; it is not a license to kill or even to put the faithful at exceptional risk of harm. The large majority of U.S. faith leaders concur and have acted accordingly, by canceling in-person worship during the pandemic. The handful who have defied state and local edicts prohibiting large gatherings imperil not only their followers but also everyone in their communities. That is an unacceptable affront to public health — and to morality.

At any given moment and place in this crisis, there is no clean line between the constitutional right to freely exercise faith and the moral mandate to protect lives. In a close call, however, and in any genuine crisis, the first obligation of government is to safeguard public health when it is endangered by a deadly threat.

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A small number of faith leaders have bridled at the strictures against gatherings for religious services imposed by governors and local leaders. Some, splitting the difference, have convened church parking lot services, where congregants are expected to remain in their socially distanced cars — potentially a workable solution, providing the faithful follow the rules. Others have taken refuge in hyperbole, such as the pastor of a Christian megachurch in Florida, Rodney Howard-Browne, who was charged with unlawful assembly and violating a stay-at-home order after holding Sunday services with hundreds of congregants. He finally shuttered the church and bowed to a threat arising, he said, “not from the virus but from a tyrannical government.”

In fact, the constitutional guarantee of civil liberties is not absolute, and its abridgment is not necessarily an act of tyranny. Dangerous speech — falsely shouting “fire” in a theater and causing panic, in Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.’s pointed example — is no more protected than dangerous assembly. And right now, in most communities, traditional religious assemblies are dangerous petri dishes that enable the transmission of a deadly virus.

The United States faced a similar tension between civil liberties and a different (but still potentially lethal) threat to public safety in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. In that instance, the public’s support for safety over freedom was greatest at the outset of the crisis, when the danger seemed most palpable. The balance subsequently shifted as the peril seemed to recede.

That may happen in the coming months, assuming the rate of new infections and the death toll dwindle. Already, there is mounting political pressure, especially among conservatives, to return to “normal” life, with a premium on pre-pandemic patterns of mobility, assembly and work. In many states, protesters, flouting social distancing guidelines, have gathered in state capitals to denounce stay-at-home orders. If any individual wants to put herself at risk, some said, that is her inalienable right.

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That facile reasoning crumbles against the rock-hard reality of coronavirus transmission. In this pandemic, the reach of an individual’s freedom to be foolish ends an inch away, where the next individual is entitled to protection against the peril posed by the fool’s heedlessness. Hence the closure of concert halls, sports arenas, restaurants and gyms. For now, the same rationale justifies and requires closing the doors to churches, synagogues, mosques and other traditional venues of worship.

Read more:

David Platt: These days I preach to an empty room. But I see my church clearer than ever.

Megan McArdle: Why the lockdown skeptics are wrong

Daniel Sallick: What my family learned after a year of social distancing

Henry Olsen: South Korea shows the world how to hold elections during a pandemic

Megan McArdle: Rural areas think they’re the coronavirus exception. They’re not.

Coronavirus: What you need to know

Vaccines: The CDC recommends that everyone age 5 and older get an updated covid booster shot. New federal data shows adults who received the updated shots cut their risk of being hospitalized with covid-19 by 50 percent. Here’s guidance on when you should get the omicron booster and how vaccine efficacy could be affected by your prior infections.

New covid variant: The XBB.1.5 variant is a highly transmissible descendant of omicron that is now estimated to cause about half of new infections in the country. We answered some frequently asked questions about the bivalent booster shots.

Guidance: CDC guidelines have been confusing — if you get covid, here’s how to tell when you’re no longer contagious. We’ve also created a guide to help you decide when to keep wearing face coverings.

Where do things stand? See the latest coronavirus numbers in the U.S. and across the world. In the U.S., pandemic trends have shifted and now White people are more likely to die from covid than Black people. Nearly nine out of 10 covid deaths are people over the age 65.

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