On March 24, President Trump expressed hopes of re-opening the United States by Easter Sunday, which falls on April 12. However, with projected COVID-19 deaths estimated anywhere from 200,000 to 1.7 million in number, the chances of the virus slowing down enough by that date seem less and less likely. Now entering Christian Holy Week, and with Jewish Passover right around the corner, faithful all over the country (and indeed, all over the world) are faced with the reality that places of worship will still be closed during these most sacred religious periods.
This latest update has revived some of the tension that rose up several weeks ago in the U.S. when states first began ordering citizens to avoid gathering together in large groups. This included religious services in response to the increasing severity of the pandemic. Many groups and individuals saw this response as a violation of religious liberty and refused to comply. Rodney Howard-Browne, a Florida-based charismatic Christian pastor who vowed not to stop services, and Louisiana pastor Tony Spell, who was warned by police after holding a service that attracted hundreds, are just two examples of individuals who reacted to the bans with outrage.
The idea that closing temples and churches in the face of pandemic is a denial of religious freedom represents a dangerous misconception. While the First Amendment guarantees American citizens’ right to peaceably assemble and protects the “free exercise” of religion, states are allowed to issue a ban that applies to society at large without singling out any one religious group for censure. The justification for this power finds precedent in the 1990 Supreme Court case Employment Division v. Smith. In this case, two Oregon residents were not exonerated for using a state-banned drug, peyote, for sacramental purposes of the Native American Church.
In the context of the coronavirus pandemic, this means that state governments are fully within their rights in closing houses of worship because they are also closing restaurants, schools, and other spaces which encourage group contact. Admittedly, prohibiting public gatherings in itself can seem drastic. Yet, this is also fully constitutional as long as the measures are temporary. As well, the state must prove that it acts to further a compelling interest and that it is taking the least restrictive means to do so.
The states’ response in closing church buildings thoroughly covers each of these criteria. The coronavirus is a severe threat to public health and safety, and the ban, intended only to last as long as quarantine and social-distancing guidelines remain relevant, is narrowly tailored to the specific circumstances of the pandemic. Even if a nation-wide shutdown of churches were to be issued at the federal level, which would require even higher standards of necessity to be met by the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, such an action would almost certainly be validated by the sheer enormity of the COVID-19 crisis.
Thankfully, most churches of the major religions in the United States have the resources at this point to adapt to the unique difficulties of this time. So please, out of compassion for your fellow parishioners and the country as a whole, take advantage of those resources and stay home this Easter. For now, the more thoroughly we adhere to the government’s social-distancing guidelines, the faster we will be able to return to our beloved churches and put our nation out of harm’s way.