Fifteen years ago, I was engaging people in thinking about how a pandemic would affect our ability to worship together in congregations when the first Avian Flu virus jumped from birds to humans. That virus never made it to the United States, and our feeling of immunity to another country’s health problems made even religious liberty advocates cease talking about issues of quarantining and the impact such could have on religious liberty and our society.
2020 brought the issue to life in a way that we could not have anticipated. Between an election and a pandemic, religious liberty has been politicized in a highly worrisome way over the last year. In addition to the constant fluidity that seems to be the catch phrase of the pandemic, it is this quick flow of actions and changes that are endangering religious freedom today.
Should Adventist churches make a conscientious effort to prevent the spread of COVID-19? Yes, indeed. Are there religious liberty concerns we need to be worried about? Absolutely! But, we need to look at the whole picture and put our own political preferences aside. The protection of religious liberty should be everyone’s concern. If we continue to politicize religion and subsequently lose our religious freedom because of our own biases, we will still be accountable to God for not protecting His precious gift to us.
Church/state scholars have been watching what is happening in the United States regarding religious liberty. More than just a single news stories, these scholars are compiling the history and changing norms being brought about by both society’s and the court’s changing reactions during the pandemic. At the beginning of the pandemic, we saw massive church closings in states with highly concentrated populations. An abundant number of Seventh-day Adventist churches (and others) decided autonomously to close ahead of the mandated state closure rules. Others closed only after the closing orders came down. And, some churches never closed, because there was not a high rate of infection in those states and no additional mandates requiring such.
While only a small fraction of churches filed court actions against the pandemic closures, they have garnered a lot of press. The courts have been scattered in their rulings, and there has been a learning curve as we have gone through the year. Courts seem to be ruling quite differently now than when the pandemic first started. In part this is due to a failure to understand or plan in advance how to handle a pandemic. Conflicts between religious liberty and public health concerns did not factor into the difference between an emergency shutdown vs. a long running pandemic plan. Most people are not going to question a temporary shut-down of church for a few weeks for health concerns, but when you start talking a couple of months and up to two years of closures, then we have a problem.
Calvary Chapel in Nevada has filed several claims in court. Their most recent was a charge of religious discrimination in that, comparing the two, casinos were being treated more favorably than churches. Here lie some serious issues involving religious liberty. When the state of Nevada reopened its casinos, they refused to lift an overly restrictive ban on church openings. If a casino had a capacity for 2,000, they could let 1,000 in the door at a time. Whereas if a church had the capacity for 2,000, they could only allow 50 in at one time. Calvary Chapel had approached the courts earlier in the summer asking for a lifting of the 50-person cap, but in a narrow 5-4 vote, the Supreme Court refused the churches’ request to block enforcement of the order.
There have been a lot of comparisons between churches and casinos/bars/restaurants/grocery stores and the list goes on. Maybe we should stop making comparisons between the godly and the ungodly. Church and religion in America have always been treated special. If you start asking to be treated like other venues, you place religion’s special status in jeopardy. Do you really want your church compared to a bar or casino?
Undeniably, churches pose a health risk in this pandemic when safeguards go unchecked. We congregate in a closed space; we speak and sing and touch shared objects like the offering plate and hymnals. Some religions share a common communion cup and kiss icons. None of these things are good for stopping a virus that spreads through droplets. So, putting aside the politicization of the virus, and only looking at how disease spreads, there are very valid public health concerns that churches need to consider. The question is … can churches adapt worship styles without compromising their beliefs?
In Nevada, the government lumped similar activities together for the close- down, but when opening back up there was a value judgment made by the state. Casinos were more important than churches. What is the value judgement in this case? The obvious answer is tax revenue. Nevada rakes in upwards of almost 39% in tax revenues from casinos. What value do tax-exempt churches give to the state? I can think of many, but Nevada obviously could not. For Nevada, church value has not been immediately apparent. And yet, churchgoers believe that having churches open and available for worship has great societal value and should be treated just as essential, if not more so, than keeping the liquor store or casinos open. If your church really is special, I would not put it up for comparison to a casino. Religion is incomparable.
While the Supreme Court voted against the Calvary Chapel Church in July, a decision in a New York case in November reversed that course, provided the churches with injunctive relief, and barred the government restrictions on religious services in New York.
Even with this turnaround, it should not go without notice that a change in the politicization of the Supreme Court affects religious liberty and the outcome. The politics of the restrictions on churches is reflective of what is going on in American culture in general — the fight between the secular and the sacred. Both must be able to exist peaceably together. The pandemic is stoking fear over cultural wars regarding religion.
Polarizing religious freedom comes at a cost. We should resist the prodding forces that would downplay the seriousness of the pandemic. When we misuse religious liberty for political reasons, it hampers efforts to keep religious liberty neutral and valued in society. Now is not the time to lose our freedoms because of political discord.
Ellen White wrote these words, “We are not doing the will of God if we sit in quietude, doing nothing to preserve liberty of conscience,” Testimonies for the Church, vol. 5, p. 714. In balancing religious freedom, we can find ways to accommodate the current situation, and remain faithful to protecting religious liberty.
director of religious liberty and public affairs at the Southern Union Conference.
Southern Union | January 2021