As much as the Constitution guarantees religious freedom in the United States, it is hard to imagine a compassionate god approving of freedom that comes with the sacrifice of souls at the altar. And yet, that is what the Supreme Court in essence sanctioned in its recent 5-4 verdict invalidating New York State’s pandemic rules on in-person religious worship.
The conservative majority of justices sided with the Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn and two Brooklyn Orthodox Jewish synagogues that the rules were discriminatory compared to those for secular businesses. The court has since also backed churches against COVID-19 restrictions in California, New Jersey, and Colorado, instructing lower courts to reconsider the cases on the basis of the New York decision.
At 310,000 deaths, we have already lost as many people to COVID-19 as make up the municipal populations of Pittsburgh, St. Louis, Cincinnati, or Orlando. The Institute of Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) estimates we will see 562,000 deaths by April. No god, if one exists, can be pleased by that.
The institute says universal masking could save 56,000 lives between now and then. Science tells us we could save even more by avoiding all but the most essential public activities. Even top scientists who believe in a higher power have repeatedly said that physically going to church is not one of those essential activities.
“The worst thing we could be doing”
Early in the pandemic, Francis Collins, the head of the National Institutes of Health and an avowed Christian, urged churches to shift to online services. Speaking to BioLogos, a group he founded to promote the idea that faith is enhanced by science, Collins said indoor gatherings are “unfortunately the worst thing we could be doing, including going to church.”
Collins recently reaffirmed this to listeners on a Zoom conversation with Russell Moore, the leader of the predominately White Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), the biggest single Protestant denomination in the United States. It claims 14.5 million members across 47,000 churches. As Collins said, “Churches gathering in person is a source of considerable concern and has certainly been an instance where super-spreading has happened and could happen again.”
And yet, while a great many church services have been virtual throughout the pandemic, too many have not. In no small irony, the SBC itself is aggressively pushing an insular interpretation of freedom that throws thy neighbor under the bus. Despite letting Collins speak, it filed an amicus brief to the Supreme Court claiming that “gathered religious worship remains crucial,” and that a “prolonged prohibition on in-person gathering represents a substantial burden on the free exercise” of faith.
Never mind the prolonged prohibition of science-based decision-making by the Trump administration that has, even with the arrival of vaccines, devastated the nation with a carnage that could ultimately rival the 675,000 deaths of the 1918 flu pandemic. The IHME warns that if the vaccine rollout seduces people and politicians to ease current COVID public health measures, the death toll could soar to 715,000 by April 1.
Equivocating guidance and tragic exercises of faith
Part of the reason we are staring at such stark figures is that during the disastrous re-openings of economies in the spring, President Trump called gathered worship “essential.” That declaration has resulted in equivocating guidance to communities of faith from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. To this day, despite the pandemic’s deadly toll, the agency’s guidance currently says, “Millions of Americans embrace worship as an essential part of life. . . CDC offers these suggestions for faith communities to consider and accept, reject, or modify, consistent with their own faith traditions, in the course of preparing to reconvene for in-person gatherings while still working to prevent the spread of COVID-19.”
In playing to his base in COVID politics (Trump won 72 percent of White Protestants and 56 percent of White Catholics in his reelection defeat), Trump debased the nation’s preeminent agency responsible for public health guidance. Rather than strongly discouraging in-person gatherings for the sake of protecting public health, such milquetoast guidance continues to say that gathered worship is worth the cost of needlessly crushing hospitals and morgues with the infected and dead.
There is little question that such weak guidance has resulted in an unacceptable number of irresponsible and tragic exercises of faith with little social distancing or use of face coverings. Consider just a few of the consequences in October alone:
- Worship at the United House of Prayer for All People in Charlotte, North Carolina, led to at least 213 COVID cases, resulting in 12 deaths. The Charlotte Observer reported that the full extent of infections is unknown as the church has many visiting worshippers from all over the South and Mid-Atlantic.
- An outbreak at Liberty Church of Grand Ledge, Michigan, led directly to 74 infections and a death.
- Services at Crossroads Community Church in Fitchburg, Massachusetts, resulted in more than 200 infections among people who then spread out to 22 cities and towns, affecting more than 75 businesses.
So far, North Carolina’s Department of Health and Human Services has recorded 131 coronavirus outbreaks tied to religious gatherings since late May, resulting in 1,800 infections and 30 deaths. In that state, religious gathering infections are now the single-highest source of cluster deaths in the state, surpassing deaths for meatpacking or independent living facilities. Just this week, Henderson County reported a 75-infection outbreak in a Baptist church, with most them linked to a Christmas pageant. North Carolina suffered a record 104 deaths on December 16.
All this came after the science had clearly established that houses of worship and religious weddings and funerals are key deadly super-spreader venues. Among the most notorious events of this nature in the spring and summer was an August wedding in Millinocket, Maine, where a gathering of 55 people resulted in at least 177 infections that spread far from the venue to kill seven people, none of whom even attended the wedding.
Such events led Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top federal infectious disease expert, to warn in August that super-spreader events are almost invariably indoors, including “choirs in churches, congregations of weddings and other social events where people get together.”
Rising tensions between churches and neighbors
Thus far, none of these tragic, documented episodes of COVID-19 spread from in-person worshipping has been sufficient to convince many congregations that the effects of their gathering extend beyond the walls of their houses of worship. In Los Angeles, services at the Grace Community Church (which have already led to at least 64 infections) have angered many in the church’s largely Latinx neighborhood who fear for their safety.
The Los Angeles Times reported that residents are afraid to come out of their homes when cars arrive for services with un-masked parishioners. Some residents leave fliers on windshields, asking them to be considerate. One resident, 50-year-old Aurora Perez, who remains physically scarred from COVID-19, has been standing outside the church as people enter or leave, holding up a sign imploring people to “Love thy neighbor. And wear a mask.”
Now, with the Supreme Court giving the green light to in-person services, tensions between churches and their neighbors and between church leaders and local and state government officials are likely to rise until vaccines become widespread.
Court sidelines science
Earlier in the coronavirus crisis, the high court narrowly rejected church challenges to gathering restrictions in California and Nevada, with Chief Justice John Roberts joining the more liberal justices in the majority. Roberts wrote that state rules for churches appeared to be fair in comparison to other secular gatherings, “including lectures, concerts, movie showings, spectator sports and theatrical performances, where large groups of people gather in close proximity for extended periods of time.”
But the court flipped on its reasoning with the addition of Justice Amy Coney Barrett. The high court now buys the argument of defiant churches that their capacity restrictions are unfair compared to those for commercial settings. Concurring in the 5-to-4 decision, Justice Neil Gorsuch took up this line of argument, acerbically blasting New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s rationale for “essential” businesses with no capacity restrictions.
“It turns out the businesses the Governor considers essential include hardware stores, acupuncturists, and liquor stores,” Gorsuch wrote. “Bicycle repair shops, certain signage companies, accountants, lawyers, and insurance agents are all essential too. So, at least according to the Governor, it may be unsafe to go to church, but it is always fine to pick up another bottle of wine, shop for a new bike, or spend the afternoon exploring your distal points and meridians.
“Who knew public health would so perfectly align with secular convenience? . . . People may gather inside for extended periods in bus stations and airports, in laundromats and banks, in hardware stores and liquor shops. No apparent reason exists why people may not gather, subject to identical restrictions, in churches or synagogues.”
Leaving aside churches for a moment, there is a point to be made about the leniency offered to secular businesses. Mayors and governors, dealing with economic desperation and a failure of the federal government to provide financial relief, have cobbled together rules that allow many businesses to operate in a risky netherworld that the vast majority of public health experts shun in their own daily lives. Indeed, a recent New York Times survey of 700 epidemiologists found that only 12 percent of them had eaten indoors at a restaurant in the last month. Less than 10 percent had worked out at a gym, ridden public transit, taken a flight, or attended a church service, a wedding, a funeral, or a sporting event. It is also of note that as many conservative politicians have aggressively pushed for in-person schooling throughout the pandemic, only 26 percent of epidemiologists send their children to in-person school or allow even outdoor play dates.
Gorsuch’s effort to compare houses of worship to secular businesses as an excuse to relax rules for religious organizations is also scientifically specious. The intimacy and duration of indoor worship, often accompanied by singing and shouting, is a much more opportunistic environment for the coronavirus than a big box store where masks are mandated for entry and lines every six feet delineate where people must stand apart from one another at checkout.
In her dissent, Justice Sonia Sotomayor, joined by Justice Elena Kagan, wrote that Gorsuch “does not even try to square his examples with the conditions medical experts tell us facilitate the spread of COVID–19: large groups of people gathering, speaking, and singing in close proximity indoors for extended periods of time.” She wrote that unlike churches, “bike repair shops and liquor stores generally do not feature customers gathering inside to sing and speak together for an hour or more at a time. . . Justices of this Court play a deadly game in second guessing the expert judgment of health officials about the environments in which a contagious virus, now infecting a million Americans each week, spreads most easily.”
With the high court now second-guessing public health protections that were already compromised by economic pressures, the situation could get even more deadly. A survey published last month by political science professors at Denison University and Eastern Illinois University found that defiance of public health measures is growing. And while defiance is growing faster among Republicans, it is growing among Democrats as well.
Defiance so far has disproportionately been led by White worshippers. A Pew survey in August found that while 44 percent of evangelicals, 42 percent of White Catholics and 39 percent of White worshippers overall had attended church within the last month, only 19 percent of Black worshippers and 24 percent of Latinx had done so. No doubt that discrepancy has something to do with the fact that the coronavirus has disproportionately slammed people of color. Given that reality, one pastor of a predominately African American congregation in Colorado Springs told Kaiser Health News that it would have been somewhere “between ridiculous and stupid” to hold indoor services.
Enlightened faith leaders
Thankfully, most congregations are showing public health restraint as much as they champ at the bit. Despite the rash actions of some rogue houses of worship, many clergy across many religions have banded together to be epidemiologists in the cloth.
When coronavirus cases surged in Utah in the summer, more than two dozen faith leaders joined with Gov. Gary Herbert to call on the public to voluntarily wear masks. Invoking the centuries-old dictum to love one’s neighbor as oneself, they wrote, “One cannot claim to love one’s neighbor while deliberately putting them at risk.”
All over the nation, ministers, imams, rabbis, and priests are spreading the same message. The Wisconsin Council of Churches and the Catholic Health Association of the United States have “Love Your Neighbor” mask campaigns. In Nebraska, where the seven-day average of daily deaths hit a record 29 on December 7, a Jewish, Muslim, and Christian coalition invoked loving thy neighbor in a letter to Governor Pete Ricketts. The coalition said it was “appalled” that Nebraska has no mask mandate. A dozen states still do not have mask orders even though the virus is now in “uncontrolled spread” or “trending poorly” in every state as of December 17, according to CovidExitStrategy.org.
In Oklahoma, Governor Kevin Stitt still refuses to issue a mask mandate despite a 30-fold rise in coronavirus cases and a record seven-day average of 26 daily deaths on December 16. In a blunt plea so far issued in vain, the Oklahoma Council of Churches, the Interfaith Alliance of Oklahoma and the interfaith Tulsa Metropolitan Ministries teamed up on a letter calling for a unified retreat to online worship services, a statewide mask mandate, and avoidance of non-essential gatherings of any size.
Urging a “faithful response to this crisis when the political response is inadequate,” the letter said, “In our current context, ‘Love Your Neighbor’ means ‘wear a mask.’”
Similarly, the Iowa Interfaith Alliance pleaded with Gov. Kim Reynolds in a November 16 letter to issue a mask mandate and prohibit all social gatherings outside immediate households. In a teleconference that same day, Rabbi Esther Hugenholtz said, “One who saves a single life, saves the world entirely.” Episcopal state diocese Bishop Alan Scarfe said masks and staying away from in-person service were acts of “love.” Sikh leader Baljit Singh Virdi invoked the selfless service principal of Seva to say it was everyone’s “moral duty” to protect others. Imam Nermin Spahic said, “Every one of you is a shepherd and is responsible for his flock.”
For months, Governor Reynolds pooh-poohed masks as a “feel-good” measure. But under heavy pressure from her own state board of health as Iowa soared toward a record 7-day average of 60 deaths a day on December 15, Reynolds begrudgingly issued mask orders riddled with exemptions, including one for religious gatherings. As if to underscore her displeasure, she made sure that anti-maskers heard her continued skepticism on whether masks work, saying, “There’s science on both sides.”
Comparing coronavirus to the plagues of darkness and mass death of the first born in Exodus, Rabbi Hugenholtz said the way out the misery was to follow “the light of evidence-based science, the light of health care, of responsible and proactive government.” Francis Collins, the scientist who has made a mission of convincing the faithful that science is the light, implored the faithful to mask up, saying, “You’re doing the altruistic, loving thing of saying, ‘I’m going to protect people from me.’ And that’s a Christian action if ever I’ve heard one.”
If all worshippers could step back and do the altruistic thing for just a few more months, masking up, staying online, and treating everyone as their neighbors, that action could go far to demonstrate our nation’s ability to find common cause against the coronavirus. To borrow from the Book of Isaiah in the Old Testament, this is a moment where all congregations should lie down with their computers and laptops for worship, while a little science leads them out of the darkness.