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Reaction and Response: Most U.S. States Exempt Religious Gatherings from Pandemic Rules

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Only 10 U.S. states do not provide exemptions to religious gatherings in their physical distancing rules and/or stay-at-home orders, according to a Pew Research Center report published April 27.

Alaska, California, Idaho, Illinois, Minnesota, Montana, New Jersey, New York, Vermont and Washington are the states that provide no religious exemptions.

Of the 40 states that offer exemptions, 16 states have no limits on religious gatherings, while 21 restrict gatherings to 10 people or fewer, and three allow for religious gatherings with other forms of restrictions.

“In some cases, religious leaders have resisted state orders, holding services in defiance of warnings from officials,” Pew said. “But many others have canceled services in an effort to comply with the CDC guidelines, despite state-level exemptions that could allow them to continue communal worship.”

Pew reported on April 30 that 91% of all U.S. adults who attend a religious service at least monthly said that their house of faith is not having in-person gatherings currently, and 82% said that services are available online.

Some church leaders have objected to these public health restrictions, claiming that First Amendment rights are being violated by these orders.

Lawsuits have been filed in multiple states, with plaintiffs citing religious freedom violations as the basis for their suit, NPR reported on April 17. “The cases all involve the tension between the constitutional right of Americans to the free exercise of their religion and the demonstrated need to protect public health.”

A conservative group has targeted Sunday, May 3, as the day for Christian churches to begin gathering in-person for worship on what it is calling “Re-Open Sunday,” according to an April 23 Religion News Service report.

COVID-19 outbreaks around the world have been tied to religious gatherings, with CNN reporting 70 cases linked to one California church, and an Axios article listing several instances of religious gatherings that have spread the novel coronavirus.

EthicsDaily.com reached out to several faith leaders for their reaction and response to government restrictions on religious gatherings due to public health concerns:

The Islamic Society of North America (ISNA) formed a National Muslim Taskforce to help U.S. Muslims navigate the pandemic and stay-at-home orders, ISNA President Sayyid M. Syeed told EthicsDaily.com via email.

“There was consensus that our religion gives precedence to the preservation of human life and dignity. Religious meetings, congregational prayers will have to be performed from our homes in order to observe social distancing,” said Syeed. “It was truly a very tough decision. But there was enough strength in the juristic precedence for closure of mosques and moving to virtual meetings and celebrations.”

A COVID-19 page has been added to the ISNA website where updates, statements and other resources are being posted. Regular updates and online worship opportunities are being provided through ISNA’s Facebook page.

A March 28 statement from the task force provided the following guidance: “Muslim community centers and places of worship should suspend all social and educational events and gatherings. Doing so is in line with important Islamic principles such as ‘avoiding harm takes precedence over acquiring benefit.’”

Friday prayers, known as Jumuah, were discouraged by the task force, which explained that “when a state authority temporarily prohibits public gatherings to protect people from credible harm, it is not permitted to establish a public Jumuah.”

“The challenge of COVID-19 was an unprecedented situation,” Syeed told EthicsDaily.com. “It has treated all religions and sects, races and colors equally. … All faiths have agreed that we have to follow the same rules and same requirements that everyone else is following.”

He concluded: “This is a positive step towards the shaping of a global common theological foundation. We need to build on this spirit and this consensus for the future. It is healthy and practical.”

Though restricting in-person worship “is an undeniable burden on religious exercise,” Amanda Tyler explained that such steps “are generally allowed when taken to protect health and safety, as they have been during the COVID-19 pandemic.”

“Courts have generally upheld these bans as not targeting religion or disfavoring religious gatherings, particularly when it comes to worship services in the church buildings,” Tyler, executive director of BJC, told EthicsDaily.com via email. “Holly Hollman and I discussed several of these cases on Episode 10 of the ‘Respecting Religion’ podcast.”

Noting that she is “deeply troubled” by initiatives like “Re-Open Church,” she emphasized that “to rush to reopen the sanctuary doors prematurely and in defiance of government directives risks lives and abdicates community leadership.”

“I’m heartened by the many religious leaders from diverse communities who have put the health and safety of their congregations and neighbors first and have shown tremendous creativity and resilience in meeting the needs of their people while continuing to observe recommended physical distancing,” Tyler said.

Andy Mangum – regional minister for the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in the Southwest, which covers Texas and New Mexico – told EthicsDaily.com that he doesn’t want the congregations under his care “to meet in face-to-face gatherings right now.”

“So, it would be easy for me to dismiss the concerns of those who say government restrictions that prevent congregations from gathering are infringements of constitutional rights,” he said via email. “However, I believe that there is truth in what they say. This does feel like a restriction on the rights of peaceful assembly and free exercise of religion.”

Most of the CCSW congregations “seem to view the government as partners and guides rather than as antagonists,” he said. The more conservative church members he has known throughout his ministry are willing to serve and sacrifice for the common good, but they want to be asked and “given good reasons” for restricting their freedoms.

Citing government restrictions such as fire codes that are accepted by houses of faith, Mangum said that he personally sees current public health restrictions “in the same light. … as conditions to keep people safe, not limitations of our freedom of thought, expression or religious practice.”

George Mason – pastor of Wilshire Baptist Church in Dallas and the founder and president of Faith Commons – co-authored an April 25 open letter to Texas political leaders published in the Dallas Morning News.

The letter rejected the idea “that continued closure is somehow an insult to religious faith and freedom” and called the physical distancing orders “a rare example of how and when the free exercise of religion must be limited.”

“In affirming the loving role of faith communities in slowing the spread of the virus, we reject the claim that continued closure is somehow an insult to religious faith and freedom,” he told EthicsDaily.com via email. “Freedom of religion does not permit us to endanger the lives of others by asserting our right to gather and serve as we wish.”

The full Pew report is available here.