The Plan for Reopening Houses of Worship After the Coronavirus Crisis

A girl performs a Torah reading to family, friends, and members of her congregation as she celebrates her bat mitzvah at home in Redmond, Washington, due to the coronavirus pandemic, April 2020.

Faith leaders are providing critical leadership for the nation at a time when the Trump administration is failing to step up. While there have been some notable exceptions, nearly all faith communities have helped save lives during the coronavirus pandemic by practicing social distancing. This has not been easy; gathering in houses of worship is an important aspect of many Americans’ lives, and this break in communal experiences has taken a spiritual toll.

To make matters worse, faith leaders have faced an added challenge as they’ve navigated the coronavirus crisis with their communities: The Trump administration and some state and local officials have attempted to politicize the pandemic into a cause of religious persecution by claiming that religious gatherings should not have the same restrictions as secular ones. But most faith groups recognize that a premature return to in-person services would increase transmission of the novel coronavirus and delay an end to the crisis. Rather, ending the crisis and resuming the normal rhythms of spiritual life, including gathering in houses of worship again, will take an evidence-based plan that includes meeting health benchmarks.

Most houses of worship are following public health orders

According to a study by the Public Religion Research Institute, only 3 percent of people who regularly attend worship services reported plans to attend in-person religious activities on or around Easter weekend. Although media coverage focused on those few Americans who insisted on continuing to attend religious gatherings in person, the study found that more than three-quarters of all Americans oppose exempting religious gatherings from stay-at-home orders and bans on mass gatherings. Interestingly, although significant majorities of Republicans, Democrats, and independents oppose these religious exemptions, there was a significant so-called Fox News effect: Those surveyed who favor Fox News as their primary news source were twice as likely to support the continuation of in-person religious gatherings.

Distorting religious freedom into a license to spread the coronavirus

The United States was founded on the principle of religious freedom. The federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) further codified this ideal when it passed with strong bipartisan political support in 1993. But today, conservative religious leaders and politicians frequently misuse this legislation—and the principle of religious freedom itself—as a license to discriminate against vulnerable communities, such as religious minorities, nonreligious people, women, and the LGBTQ community. They argue that religious freedom should essentially overrule all other rights. Using religious freedom as an excuse for continuing to hold in-person gatherings is one of the most alarming examples yet in their attempt to redefine the principle. 

Public health officials who include houses of worship in their closure orders are “constitutionally justified” as long as those orders are “generally applicable,” according to John Inazu, a law professor at Washington University in St. Louis. Yet from the earliest days of the pandemic, some conservative Christian pastors resisted closure orders. Notable cases include Rodney Howard-Browne in Florida and Tony Spell in Louisiana.

While the virus does not discriminate among various types of in-person gatherings, officials in at least 20 states discriminated in their implementation of public health orders by including religious exemptions. Giving religious communities a free pass to remain open, thereby spreading the virus, has never been based on evidence-based public health guidance. Those exemptions were made to acquiesce to certain conservative religious leaders, politicians, and legal advocacy groups who advance a narrative that conservative Christians are being persecuted in this country.

An Associated Press analysis found, “At least a dozen state or federal suits filed since the virus outbreak started have focused partly or fully on freedom to worship in person.” The legal advocacy groups bringing these lawsuits—the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, Alliance Defending Freedom, and Liberty Counsel—are the same ones that have been twisting religious freedom into a license to attack vulnerable populations for years before the pandemic.

The Trump administration has consistently advanced this distorted view of religious freedom, and there is every indication that it is using the pandemic to further this policy agenda. On April 18, President Donald Trump made a baseless claim during a White House press conference that state and local government officials were treating Christians worse than Muslims during the pandemic: “Our politicians seem to treat different faiths very differently. … The Christian faith is treated much differently.” On a White House call with more than 500 faith leaders, U.S. Attorney General William Barr said he was “very concerned” about threats to religious freedom during the pandemic.

The Trump administration’s most concerning action is its misuse of religious freedom in draft Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines. Unlike other types of gatherings, where guidance took on a more imperative tone, “There was a decision to say ‘consider’ so we aren’t infringing,” one administration official told The Washington Post. The draft guidance states no public health rationale for why religious communities should be treated in a different manner than any other type of gathering, but it mentions RFRA twice. Appeals to the law seem unnecessary in a document detailing public health recommendations. RFRA applies to federal actions, not state-based orders, and only some states have their own versions of the legislation. Indeed, the Post report detailed intense internal debate over religious gatherings, signaling that political concerns—not science—are driving the decision.

Creating a plan for reopening houses of worship

Public health evidence must guide the eventual reopening of houses of worship. As CAP’s recent column “National and State Plan To End the Coronavirus Crisis” states: “The steps that need to be taken to end the coronavirus crisis are not unknown; they are clear and informed by evidence and the experience of other countries.” This evidence-based plan detailed in the CAP column includes the following conditions for a state to lift its stay-at-home order:

  • Transmission in the state is suppressed to South Korean levels of about 20 new cases per million people per day and the number of new cases per day is declining
  • Every resident of the state who has a fever, and every member of a household of a positive case, has access to a COVID-19 diagnostic test
  • Instantaneous contact tracing to limit any outbreaks
  • Every front-line health care worker in the state has access to PPE [personal protective equipment]
  • A robust surveillance system is in place, which is necessary to verify the first condition, that is testing throughout the country regularly

Achieving these conditions will take time and much stronger political leadership from the Trump administration, as well as continued leadership from religious leaders. Once states start to lift restrictions, there will inevitably be a heartful rush for religious communities to resume in-person services and programs. Faith leaders who have played an important role in communicating the necessity of social distancing must continue to do so because forms of physical distancing will still be needed.

Even once stay-at-home orders are lifted, gatherings of more than 50 people will need to continue to be banned until herd immunity has been achieved through mass vaccination. These continued limitations will have a profound impact on religious communities and will require creative responses. The shared commitment to saving lives must continue in order to spur innovation and adaptation, just as it has throughout the crisis.

Conclusion

Faith leaders and institutions have been vital supports for communities struggling to stay connected, mourn lost loved ones, and make ends meet. Many low-income communities and communities of color are hardest hit by the coronavirus and the response to the pandemic, as long-standing disparities in access to health care now rise to the fore. Faith leaders are among those advocating most loudly for access to coronavirus testing and treatment. The Trump administration should hear their concerns and provide states and localities with the support they need to equitably care for their residents.

Reopening houses of worship will need to be a gradual process between now and the lifting of all restrictions once herd immunity is achieved through mass vaccination. Faith communities must continue to follow evidence-based public health guidance, continuing to care for their members in alternative ways, and not be distracted by distortions of religious freedom claims that provide a license to spread the virus. Conservative politicians and pastors must stop advancing this narrow policy agenda, particularly in the midst of a pandemic, and join the vast majority of religious Americans who are focused on saving lives.

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.

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