Concerted effort to protect religious freedoms is playing out as some states exempt houses of worship from stay-home orders
When a Florida pastor, who had been arrested for holding a church service despite local coronavirus restrictions, complained he was the victim of a tyrannical government, Ron DeSantis, the states Republican governor, was listening.
In executive orders issued in quick succession this week, DeSantis designated religious services as essential activities. Then he swept away the right of cities and counties to ban them.
I dont think the government has the authority to close a church. Im certainly not going to do that, DeSantis said. In Easter season, people are going to want to have access to religious services.
This, however, was no municipality-versus-state power struggle. A concerted effort to protect religious freedoms is playing out across the country in the face of the coronavirus pandemic, frustrating efforts by public health officials to enforce social distancing per federal guidelines and slow the spread of the deadly virus.
In almost all of the states that lead the nation in numbers of cases, and which have issued blanket stay-at-home orders, there are specific exemptions for religious gatherings or acts of worship, a survey by the Guardian of published regulations and media coverage found.
In others with definitive lists of non-essential businesses or activities ordered to close, churches, synagogues, mosques, temples and other houses of faith are not among them.
What isnt clear is how many people are still attending services, or how many are taking place. Leaders of many of the largest religions by followers in the US, including Mormonism, Catholicism, Islam and various denominations of Judaism, have closed houses of worship and are urging services take place online.
This decision comes out of sacrificial love, not from habitual or casual disregard for worship, the leaders of Christianity Today and the National Association of Evangelicals said in a joint statement.
We will not be passing the peace with hugs, but rather with texts and phone calls. Are these modes inferior? Yes. Will they be acceptable to the Lord? We also believe, yes.
But there is a growing backlash, likely to be fuelled by the intervention of political leaders such as DeSantis, and Greg Abbott, the governor of Texas, who this week signed his own executive order designating religious services as essential and leaving houses of worship to make their own decisions while urging them to work remotely.
An open letter to Catholic bishops calling for public mass and access to the holy sacraments is gaining traction online, pushed by a newly-formed group of theologians and ministers calling itself the Easter People.