A Few Churches Are Defying Bans on Large Gatherings. That Could Be Bad for Religious Liberty.

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Ninety-three percent of Protestant churches are closed in America, for fear of spreading COVID-19. Religious liberty advocates are worried about the other seven percent.

The few churches touting First Amendment freedom while defying emergency stay-at-home orders may do lasting damage to the arguments for religious liberty, according to experts like Luke Goodrich, senior counsel with the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty.

“We have to be able to distinguish between real threats and mere shadows,” Goodrich said. “Stoking conflict and grandstanding about things that aren’t real threats isn’t helpful. It’s like crying wolf. It deadens society to the real religious conflicts that are at hand.”

Goodrich has a robust view of religious liberty. He believes that even unpopular minorities should be allowed to practice their faith free from government intrusion and has made the argument successfully to the Supreme Court in some of the most important cases of the last few years. Goodrich defended a religious prisoner’s right to grow a beard, a religious school’s right to fire a sick teacher, and a religious company’s right not to provide its employees with insurance that covers some forms of birth control.

But he doesn’t see the argument for churches’ right to hold worship services in a pandemic.

“Legally, the issues are not that complex,” Goodrich said. “Every constitutional right has limits, and the right of religious freedom doesn’t mean you can harm your neighbors.”

The law varies from state to state, but even the strongest protections of religious practice allow for some restrictions. If the government isn’t targeting religious groups, has a legitimate reason for the law, and doesn’t impose a heavier burden than it has to, then it can restrict people’s right to practice their faith.

Stopping a pandemic is a clear government interest, and public officials around the globe have warned that churches can be hot spots for the spread of COVID-19. Major outbreaks in South Korea and France have been traced back to church meetings. And in the United States, they’ve been linked to a choir practice in Washington state, a Pentecostal church in California, and church funerals in Georgia.

Unsympathetic faces

Currently, 45 states have instituted stay-at-home, safer-at-home, and shelter-in-place orders, which ban large gatherings of people. Some exempt religious gatherings, but most do not. The majority of white evangelicals support this. The American Enterprise Institute found that 72 percent—along with 71 percent of Hispanic Catholics, 74 percent of black Protestants, 76 percent of white Catholics, and 80 percent of white mainline Protestants—don’t think there should be religious exemptions to the emergency public health orders.

And most of the people who don’t think religious organizations should be required to close their doors are still willing to do it voluntarily. A LifeWay Christian Resources Survey found that by March 29, all but 7 percent of Protestant churches had stopped in-person meetings.

The minority who disagree, however, are loud. They’re good at grabbing attention. And they’re claiming religious liberty arguments as their own.

A Oneness Pentecostal pastor in Louisiana defied the state’s ban on large gatherings and said, “We hold our religious rights dear, and we are going to assemble no matter what someone says.”

Three churches in Texas filed a lawsuit alleging a county order banning large gatherings is unconstitutional. “The circumstances presented by coronavirus do not excuse unlawful government infringements upon freedom,” the lawsuit states. “The free exercise of religion cannot be taken lightly and should not be sacrificed at the altar of political expediency.”

In Florida, a pastor of a charismatic church was arrested for holding services that allegedly violated a county stay-at-home order. Rodney Howard-Browne, a strong supporter of President Donald Trump and a revivalist known for promoting uncontrolled laugher as a sign of the presence of the Holy Spirit, is fighting the misdemeanor charges in court and filing a federal lawsuit claiming the arrest was a violation of his religious liberty.

If these people become the face of the argument for religious liberty, that could change public perception of the legitimacy of legal protections for religious practice, said John Inazu, a law professor at Washington University in St. Louis.

“To put an unsympathetic plaintiff at the forefront of a case, it shifts the cultural and national debate,” said Inazu, who wrote an academic book on the right of assembly. “This will represent Christianity for many, many people. Most people aren’t going to be able to say, ‘That’s just one guy in Florida.’ They’ll say, ‘That’s what Christians do. They prioritize their own gatherings instead of loving their neighbors.’”

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Source: Christianity Today