One of American democracy’s bragging points is the freedom of religion and the constitutional principle of the separation of church and state, the existence of a wall between the operations of government and the operations of religious institutions. One does not regulate or interfere with the doctrine, rules, laws, or operations of the other. Fortunately for the health and safety of all Americans, the wall that creates freedom of religion in America is a wall of Swiss cheese.
The phrase “Separation of church and state” is a paraphrase of founding father Thomas Jefferson, it is meant to refer to the First Amendment to the United States Constitution which reads: “ Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…” One of the most famous legal cases to be decided based on this constitutional principle was Engel v. Vitale, a 1962 case where the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that it is unconstitutional for public schools to require students to pray or recite prayers as part of any school functions.
It was a ruling that was unpopular with many Christians. 58 years later there are still religious conservatives that argue that prohibiting prayer in schools is the reason for current dysfunction in American society, and also that prohibiting prayer in schools is government overreach and a violation of the U.S. Constitution’s principle of freedom of religion. But now the Covid-19 coronavirus has caused some religious conservatives to cry foul again, citing yet another example of what they consider an attack on freedom of religion in America.
38 of the 50 U.S. states have issued stay-at-home orders and a shutdown of all businesses and services except for those identified by the state as essential. 11 of the 38 states have identified in-person worship as an essential service. This was done against the advice of both their state health officials and the federal guidelines of no social gatherings of more than 10 people. In Florida, who was among the last group of the 38 states to enact a stay-at-home-/shutdown order, some local governments acted quicker to shut down social gatherings than the state of Florida.
Last week a Florida pastor, Rodney Howard-Browne, was arrested and charged with misdemeanor counts of unlawful assembly and violation of the public health rules by holding 2 services with hundreds of people at his Tampa megachurch. Following Howard-Browne’s arrest for violating the local county ordinance banning large social gatherings with no exemptions for churches, Hillsborough County Sheriff Chad Chronister said, “ His reckless disregard for human life put hundreds of people in his congregation and thousands of residents who may interact with them this week in danger.”
In a defiant explanation of why he would stop the in-person services, Howard-Browne said, “ I have to do this to protect the congregation — not from the virus but from a tyrannical government.” 2 days later Florida Governor Ron DeSantis (R) issued a statewide stay-at-home/shutdown order that specifically exempted in-person religious services.
In suburban Baton Rouge, Louisiana Pastor Tony Spell of Life Tabernacle Church was arrested for violating the Governor’s executive order banning large social gatherings. Spell carried on with a scheduled service last Tuesday despite being issued a misdemeanor summons for ignoring a state-wide order barring large gatherings just hours earlier, like Howard-Browne he also claimed an attack on his freedom of religion saying: “ We will continue to have church, this is a government overreach. They’re asking us as a government to stop practicing our freedom of religion. And we have a mandate from God to assemble and to gather together and to keep doing what we’re doing.”
In Houston, Texas 3 pastors and a conservative activist filed a petition with the Texas Supreme Court. It asked the justices to strike down a county ordinance banning churches from holding in-person worship services. Jared Woodfill, the attorney for the group, said Wednesday that he’s now getting calls from churches that want to join the lawsuit. Most are evangelical Christian, a few are Catholic, and all plan to continue or resume in-person worship services. At least five more had come on board in addition to the three that signed the petition, he said. “ All of the folks I work with are moving forward with services,” Woodfill said referring to the Easter holiday coming up.
Before the Texas Justices could rule Texas Gov. Greg Abbott issued a stay-at-home/ shutdown executive order. It superseded all Texas local government laws and exempted in-person church worship services anywhere in the state from any local government shutdowns.
Harvard University epidemiologist Bill Hanage says exempting religious services from shelter-in-place orders is “ an incredibly bad idea.” Based on how we have seen the coronavirus spread in America he is 100% correct. The coronavirus outbreak in the state of Georgia can be traced to 2 funerals held in Albany, Ga, the outbreak in Arkansas started at a church service, Sacramento, California public health officials say a third of the county’s coronavirus cases are connected to church worship services, an outbreak of 43 people in Illinois started at a church service, and one of the major outbreaks in the state of New York is traced back to an Orthodox Jewish celebration.
Just as the freedom of speech does not give one the right to yell fire in a crowded theater because it endangers the life of others, the freedom of religion does not grant the right to hold worship services that expose the life of others to a fatal virus.
Any church, mosque or temple that claims that they are exercising their freedom of religion rights by defying government orders and holding in-person worship services, are attempting to change the freedom of religion to the freedom of insanity. Because no legitimate religion requires in-person attendance of worship services to communicate with God through prayer, in-person attendance of worship services is not necessary to apply the religious principles of one’s faith to daily life, and because the way people interact in churches, synagogues, mosques by shaking hands, hugging, and singing creates what Harvard epidemiologist Hanage called “ super-spreading events. “ In-person worship allows the coronavirus to spread like wildfire, infecting most of the worshipers present who then leave and infect the larger community of people who didn’t attend the worship service.
Fortunately for all Americans, the constitutional wall that separates church and state has Swiss cheese holes in it. The holes allow the government to reach through and shut down deadly church services for those whose faith blinds them to good judgment, stopping freedom of religion from becoming freedom of insanity.
Isaac Newton Farris Jr. is the nephew of Martin Luther King, Jr. and serves as Senior Fellow at the King Center. Growing up in one of the most socially and politically active families has given him a unique perspective on current events. Drop by his website for straight talk free of one-sided political spin.
Originally published at https://isaacnewtonfarris.com on April 7, 2020.