Religious Exemptions During the Coronavirus Pandemic Will Only Worsen the Crisis

Unoccupied seats are seen as Sunday Mass at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., is live-webcast due to the coronavirus, March 22, 2020.

This column’s list of states with religious exemptions to stay-at-home and mass gathering orders was updated on April 8 to account for states’ rapidly evolving policies on the coronavirus.

Collective efforts to flatten the curve of COVID-19 through social distancing are critical to spreading out the rate of infection over time so that America’s health care system is not overwhelmed. “If we don’t make substantial changes, both in spreading the disease over time and expanding capacity, we’re going to run out of hospital beds,” Harvard Global Health Institute Director Dr. Ashish Jha told The New York Times. “And in that instance, we will not be able to take care of critically ill people, and people will die.”

However, at a time when it is crucial to respond thoughtfully and prudently to this pandemic, there is an alarming trend of government officials ignoring public health warnings and refusing to call on houses of worship to close. Establishing religious exemptions—in this case, by freeing houses of worship from public health order compliance—will only result in more cases of COVID-19 and greater numbers of death from the disease.

Thankfully, many religious communities, which sit at the nexus of caring for people and being a focal point of community gatherings, are leading efforts to flatten the curve. A diverse group of religious organizations, including the National Association of Evangelicals, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and the newly established National Muslim Task Force on COVID-19, have called for suspending in-person services. Many religious organizations have found new and creative ways to gather for worship, pray together, and continue community social service work. Faith community leaders deserve praise for their efforts to combat the coronavirus; they serve as trusted messengers who affect the daily lives of people of faith outside faith-specific spaces.

While most faith communities are choosing to follow public health guidance, religious exemptions only encourage some religious entities and leaders to disregard or even openly challenge public health guidance: “We are not stopping anything,” Pastor Rodney Howard-Browne said to his River Tampa Bay Church in Florida. “I’ve got news for you, this church will never close.” In Ohio, Gov. Mike DeWine (R) implored ministers, priests, and rabbis to “think about your congregation.” But that didn’t stop Solid Rock Church outside of Cincinnati from continuing to hold in-person services. Likewise, in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, Pastor Tony Spell of Life Tabernacle Church not only continued to hold services, but also told The Washington Post: “We feel we are being persecuted for the faith by being told to close our doors.” And in New York City, some ultra-Orthodox Jewish communities continue to congregate and have seen a “huge spike” in coronavirus cases.

Doubts about the seriousness of the coronavirus pandemic among many religious communities didn’t arise organically but rather were spurred by President Donald Trump, who downplayed the concern for many weeks and is now casting doubt on his own government’s social distancing recommendations. Just this week, Trump said he would like to see “packed churches all over our country” on Easter, even as public health experts warn that such circumstances would be disastrous. Some of the president’s top Evangelical supporters have also cast doubt on the public health warnings. Liberty University President Jerry Falwell Jr. peddled conspiracy theories about the virus being a North Korean bioweapon on Fox News and refuses to close the campus of the university. Trump adviser Robert Jeffress speculated that the virus was a “judgment from God,” and Paula White, special adviser to the White House Faith and Opportunity Initiative, headlined an “Evangelicals for Trump” rally at Solid Rock Church in Ohio earlier this month—ignoring public health warnings. Both Jeffress and White dragged their feet on suspending in-person services.

States with religious exemptions to stay-at-home orders and mass gathering bans

The United States, and indeed the entire world, is facing a critical public health emergency. Governments at all levels are taking drastic but necessary steps to ensure all individuals’ safety. While orders from federal, state, and local authorities continue to evolve in response to this virus, there has been a series of actions aimed at flattening the curve of COVID-19 across the country. These include stay-at-home orders and bans on various sizes of gatherings. Several of these orders, however, specifically exempt houses of worship or other faith-based institutions, creating unnecessary risk. The following states* have established religious exemptions to bans on gathering size and other stay-at-home orders:

  • New York (March 20): New York includes under guidance on essential services: “Houses of worship are not ordered closed however it is strongly recommended no congregate services be held and social distance maintained.”
  • New Jersey (March 21): New Jersey ordered all residents to stay in their homes unless “leaving the home for an educational, religious, or political reason.”
  • Louisiana (March 22): Louisiana issued a stay-at-home ban for nonessential activities, exempting travel to and from places of worship.
  • Ohio (March 22): Ohio issued a stay-at-home order except for essential activities, which include performing work or carrying out activities at religious entities.
  • Massachusetts (March 23): Massachusetts considers workers at places of worship to be providing an essential service, therefore exempting them from temporarily closing. However, religious entities are still limited to gatherings of no more than 10 people.
  • Michigan (March 23): Michigan issued a stay-at-home ban for nonessential activities, exempting places of worship from penalty for violating the ban.
  • New Mexico (March 23): New Mexico prohibits “mass gatherings” of more than five people but exempts those congregated in a church, synagogue, mosque, or other place of worship.
  • West Virginia (March 23): West Virginia issued a stay-at-home order, exempting travel to and from one’s place of worship, and it considers religious institutions essential businesses.
  • Mississippi (March 24): Mississippi exempts “religious entities” as “essential activities,” provided they follow Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and Mississippi State Department of Health guidance.
  • North Carolina (March 27): North Carolina issued a stay-at-home order that exempts places of worship as an essential activity; religious entities are still limited to gatherings of no more than 10 people.
  • Arizona (March 30): Arizona considers religious activities to be “essential activities,” provided that are conducted with “physical distancing to the extent feasible.”
  • Tennessee (March 30): Tennessee issued a stay-at-home order exempting “religious facilities, entities, groups, personnel, services, rites, and gatherings,” provided that they follow state health guidance.
  • Texas (March 31): Texas issued a stay-at-home order exempting “religious services conducted in churches, congregations, and houses of worship” as “essential services,” with the caveat that any services that “cannot be conducted from home or through remote services” must be conducted in accordance with federal public health guidance.
  • Colorado (April 1): Colorado permits houses of worship to “remain open, but must practice social distancing or use electronic platforms.”
  • Florida (April 1): Florida exempts “[a]ttending religious services conducted in churches, synagogues and houses of worship” as “essential activities.”
  • Pennsylvania (April 1): Pennsylvania exempts the operations of religious institutions from its stay-at-home order but encourages religious leaders to “find alternatives to in-person gatherings.”
  • Ohio (April 2): Ohio issued a stay-at-home order that exempts religious entities as “essential businesses and operations.”
  • Arkansas (April 4): Arkansas exempts houses of worship from its ban on gatherings of 10 or more people.
  • Indiana (April 6): Indiana exempts religious entities from its stay-at-home order and considers them “essential,” provided they follow CDC guidance.
  • South Carolina (April 6): South Carolina issued a “Home or Work” order, exempting as essential activities “[a]ttending religious services conducted in churches, synagogues, or other houses of worship.”

* Authors’ note: This list is current as of April 7. It may not be exhaustive, since these orders are quickly emerging and evolving.

Within the context of a public health emergency, the government can impose mandatory restrictions, such as assembly bans and quarantines, to stop the spread of a communicable disease. Restrictions that meet these requirements can include religious gatherings. Congregating not only potentially exposes the worshippers themselves, but also risks the lives and well-being of their entire families and communities. Federal and state laws require that government make every effort to avoid restricting religious freedom in the process, but there is no religious freedom claim that would supersede the compelling government interest in protecting public health during a pandemic. In the words of legal experts Robin Fretwell Wilson, Brian A. Smith, and Tanner J. Bean:

Given the extraordinary risk of transmission of the coronavirus, together with COVID-19’s lethality, finding a compelling interest in limiting gatherings to ten people or less or to making citizens shelter in place seems fairly straightforward. … As exemptions [for critical infrastructure] pile up, churches have a legitimate beef. When governments fail to apply burdens across the board, the argument that the government must restrict public gathering for worship in the name of the public’s health becomes less compelling. But the answer should be not to equalize up, giving everyone, including churches, exemptions. More carve-outs will gut the state’s public health safeguards. Instead, we need to equalize down. In a pandemic, we need fewer exemptions, not more.

A legally imposed assembly ban that exempts religious gatherings is not based on scientific evidence. Viruses do not discriminate, and neither should America’s public health response; there is no scientific basis to distinguish between religious gatherings and nonreligious gatherings. Rather than find ways to impose fewer restrictions or exempt entire communities, there is every indication that more restrictions are needed across the United States to stop the spread of COVID-19.

The impact of the coronavirus on communities of faith

Make no mistake: Faith communities are among those most affected by this virus simply by virtue of the fact that they gather in person frequently. Indeed, in Washington, D.C., the first confirmed case of COVID-19 was an Episcopal priest, and the district’s first COVID 19-related death was the passing of a Franciscan friar, John-Sebastian Laird-Hammond. The first person to pass away from COVID-19 in Baton Rouge was the Rev. Leon Franklin, a Baptist minister. Oklahoma’s first COVID-19 death was the passing of the Rev. Merle Dry, a Pentecostal pastor. And New Rochelle, New York, became the first containment zone in the United States after the Young Israel synagogue was deemed the epicenter of an outbreak there, while in Italy, at least 60 priests reportedly died from COVID-19 over the course of one week.

Too many faith leaders and community members have already become infected by or passed away because of COVID-19. Many of them lost their lives while in service to their communities, some even sacrificing their own lives to save others. Prohibiting houses of worship from gathering in person is a necessary step to protect other faith leaders and community members—and indeed everyone—from falling ill.

For many faith communities, it is an incredibly painful experience to close the doors of one’s house of worship. One rabbi and Holocaust survivor reportedly cried as he said, “I never believed I’d survive and then have to close my synagogue.” Yet most are doing what is necessary to maintain the health of their own communities and those around them. Indeed, this week, leaders from the National Association of Evangelicals and Christianity Today published a joint op-ed reminding people that “God cannot be consigned to a place.” They added: “It is one thing to risk your own life in order to worship together in person; it is quite another to risk the lives of countless others, when so many churches are finding creative and compelling ways to carry on in worship and community from a distance.” It is irresponsible for the federal government to fail to provide stronger guidance for faith communities at this time and for state and local government officials to exempt faith communities from the restrictions they have imposed on large gatherings.

Conclusion

The Center for American Progress has written extensively about religious exemptions, particularly those imposed by the federal government, which often invite discrimination against LGBTQ people, women, and people of minority faiths. Certain groups use overly broad religious exemptions, in the supposed name of religious freedom, to exempt faithful individuals, religious organizations, nonprofits, and even for-profit businesses from following certain laws and regulations.

In the context of a pandemic, religious exemptions put far too many people at risk and will result in countless deaths.

Fortunately, most faith communities, in the absence of government leadership, have chosen to act responsibly and have ended all in-person gatherings during this crisis. Many faith leaders are connecting online, sharing resources and supporting one another. For example, faith leaders seeking ideas and support for this new way of leading and ministering to their communities may request to join a private Facebook group called “Multifaith Clergy & Spiritual Communal Responses to COVID-19,” which aims to address these issues.

During this unprecedented time of crisis, most faith communities are stepping up and doing whatever they can to respond reasonably and responsibly to this pandemic. The very least federal, state, and local governments can do is to include faith communities among those they seek to protect.

Maggie Siddiqi is the director of the Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative at the Center for American Progress. Guthrie Graves-Fitzsimmons is a fellow with the Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative at the Center. Eva Gonzalez is an external affairs intern at the Center. 

The authors would like to thank Kate Martin for her helpful guidance and contributions to this column.

To find the latest CAP resources on the coronavirus, visit our coronavirus resource page.