​Religion and the Covid-19 Panic

​Ron Capshaw July/August 2020

Because of the worldwide nature of COVID-19, religious practice everywhere has been affected. When a group of Greek Christians made the pilgrimage to Bethlehem and caught COVID-19, the Palestine Authority responded by declaring a “state of emergency,” closing all mosques and churches in the city of Christ’s birth. Israel, which, as of March, had had 21 cases of COVID-19, banned both Israelis and Palestinians from entering the “holy city.”

At the Sanctuary of Fatima, the site of a massive annual Catholic pilgrimage, church authorities in Portugal demanded that holy water fountains “be emptied and priests avoid physical contact with the faithful” (as of March, Portugal had reported 13 confirmed cases of COVID-19). The Saudi government barred foreign Muslims from visiting the “holiest cities,” such as Mecca, the city toward which 1.8 billion Muslims “pray eight times a day.”

Along with such apparently necessary restrictions, there has arisen the fear that religious freedoms are effectively under siege; a belief that some governments might use the pandemic as an excuse to stifle the free exercise of religion.

Nadine Maenza, a commissioner of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, shares such concerns. She has made a point of asserting that even during a pandemic, people “still have the right to practice their religion.” She said that religious freedoms “are not a derogated right, which means that it doesn’t disappear during war or public emergencies.”

Maenza’s main concern is to “make sure that countries aren’t using the pandemic as an excuse to single out religious minorities.” She has promised that the Commission is monitoring any activity.

But Dede Laugesan, executive director of the Save the Persecuted Christians, an organization pledged to protect Christians from “worldwide persecution,” believes authoritarian governments are already using the pandemic to persecute religious minorities. “In a worldwide crisis,” she points out, “religious freedom is often affected first, especially in countries that are closed off to Christianity.Situations like these create opportunities for persecution to exploit the crisis and operate with a greater sense of impunity.”

She cites the birthplace of the pandemic, Communist China, as an example. There the government is currently persecuting Muslims by putting them in concentration camps (many of the detainees are elderly and infirm) and denying them medical attention. They are using these undernourished prisoners to replenish the factory worker population decimated by COVID-19.

Even in America, some have come to believe their government is exploiting the crisis not only to persecute religious minorities but control religion as a whole. And they are pushing back in a variety of ways that range from provocative demonstrations to legal action.

When Kansas governor Laura Kelly issued an order limiting church gatherings to 10 people or less to stop the spread of COVID-19, the pastors of the First Baptist Church in Dodge City and the Calvary Baptist Church in Junction City filed a lawsuit through their advocate, the Alliancefor Defending Freedom.They asserted that Kelly’s order violated their religious freedom. Federal judge John Broomes agreed, and issued a temporary order (until May 2) blocking Kelly’s order: “Plaintiffs have made a sufficient showing that a live controversy exists as to whether the governor’s current restrictions on religious activity violated plaintiffs’ First Amendment right to freely exercise their religion,” the judge wrote.

But Governor Kelly refused to back down: “This is not about religion. This is about a public health crisis,” she said. And of the plaintiff’s victory, she regards this as merely one battle in a continuing war: “This ruling was just a preliminary step.There is still a long way to go in this case.”

When Kentucky governor Andy Beshear authorized state police to issue “Quarantine and Prosecution” notices on those who attended religious “mass gatherings,” attendees at a Maryville church struck back.Plaintiffs T. J. Roberts, Randall Daniel, and Sally O’Boye filed a lawsuit against Beshear’s order. The lawsuit read: “In his every briefing, the governor made clear that he was going to target religious services for their”notices, apart from other gatherings. Based on the activity” of the “Kentucky State Police . . . the governor carried out this threat.”

Not even such innovative practices as drive-in religious services are protected. In Greenville, Mississippi, Mayor Errick Simmons banned such services. The Temple Baptist Church, represented by lawyers with the Alliance for Defending Freedom, filed a lawsuit. District judge Justin Walker agreed with them and issued a temporary order blocking Simmons’ ban.

For Kelly Shackleford of the First Liberty Institute, an advocacy group for religious freedom, this ban was “massively unconstitutional”: “It targets churches in a way that targets no other groups. Cars in parking lots are fine. It’s only a crime if the cars in the parking lots are at the church parking lot.”

Such fears of using this crisis to target religious practices have been expressed at the top. Attorney General William Barr has promised to investigate the actions of local governments that attempt to shut down church services.

Kerri Kupec, the Department of Justice’s director of communication, tweeted that “social distancing policies are appropriate.” However, “they must be applied evenhandedly and not single out” church worship.

One of the most eloquent arguments against the government using this crisis to imperil religious freedom comes from Anne Hall on the Revival Ministries International website.Asserting that governments have disqualified church service as an “essential” one in times of crisis, Hall cites church service during such circumstances as paramount: “The church is a place where people turn to for help and for comfort in a climate of fear and uncertainty.”

Hall, an attorney, uses Moore v. Draper as an argument against the government depriving whole denominations of the right to worship.In that case, the Florida Supreme Court ruled that John Moore, who had tuberculosis, could not return to church until he was healthy.

But she sees governmental restrictions and bans on church service during COVID-19 as something new on the horizon. Now the government is restricting “healthy people” from attending services. There is “nothing in law or precedent,” says Hall, justifying such a “blanket and arbitrary assertion” of “a state of emergency” from “unquestionable authority.”

Hall may have a point. The COVID-19 pandemic situation and its effect on religious freedom is not really new. During the Spanish flu epidemic of 1918 the government in Washington, D.C., banned all public gatherings, and the churches complied. Then, when the numbers of fatalities declined, the governments acceded to church requests, and allowed services to resume.

But COVID-19 deaths are not yet in steep decline, and such trust in the government—local, state, and federal—is not what it was in 1918.Today the basis for all the lawsuits isn’t just anger from Congregationalists that they can’t attend church; it is also a libertarian fear as old as the republic: that if they allow government control over their freedom to worship, the government won’t relinquish it if and when the COVID-19 crisis passes. But no one knows when it will pass. And hence the tension and lawsuits over public safety versus freedom of religion will likely continue indefinitely.

Article Author: ​Ron Capshaw

Ron Capshaw is a journalist and freelance writer in Midlothian, Virginia.