As more and more cities, counties and even some states are passing more and more restrictions on gatherings and travel in what I believe is a well intended effort to combat COVID-19; we can not forget there exists a freedom of religion in this country that is found in no other. That being said we, as a church must proceed wisely and with caution in the these times. Last week I wrote and article COVID-19 and the Church that deals with the immediate effects of the 15 day restrictions placed on gathering of 10 or more people. This article deals with the proposed long term effects of COVID-19 and the Church and State working together.
Guidance for Churches and Religious Institutions Facing Coronavirus Restrictions on Gathering
The Coronavirus Pandemic has motivated some state officials to impose restrictions on the gathering of large numbers of people in one place at a time, including in a house of worship. Unlike other, voluntary restrictions self-imposed by organizations such as the NCAA or the NBA, these state-mandated restrictions carry the power of law, violating them may lead to legal consequences.
Church and state have an opportunity to work together to reduce the impact of the virus on our communities while encouraging calm and preserving liberty. We offer the following guidance:
1. Religious institutions should continue to serve their local communities. America’s churches and religious institutions have played a central role in caring for their local community throughout history. Whether that is through acts of mercy, providing shelter, or simply being a source of encouragement and peace in times of crisis, America’s religious institutions should continue to be source of strength through service to their local community, especially as their communities may be particularly burdened during this pandemic.
2. Temporary, evenly applied restrictions may be permissible. Government may not substantially burden the free exercise of religion unless it has a compelling reason for doing so, and even then, it must use the least burdensome approach that achieves that compelling interest. Temporary action to reduce the spread of a global pandemic is almost certainly a compelling reason, so long as the government is not treating religious institutions unfairly compared with how it treats other comparable gatherings. For instance, if state officials require churches to ensure that each service has no more than 250 persons, but officials do not require a nearby theater to do likewise, the state may have engaged in religious discrimination.
3. Extraordinary state action to limit the peaceful gathering of American citizens must be temporary. Permanent restrictions on the peaceful assembly of American citizens—and especially those gathered to exercise their religion— violate the U.S. Constitution and are not permissible. As they have throughout history, churches and America’s religious institutions will play a key role in providing care during this global pandemic.
Click here to access APN’s COVID-19 Pastoral Response Kit, and stay tuned in the coming days as APN will share further suggestions of tangible ways to meet the needs of the household of faith and meet the needs of those outside the household of faith to fulfill the obligation of furthering the Gospel and making disciples.