Government restrictions on churches during the COVID-19 pandemic are almost certainly legal provided they are temporary and don’t target congregations, according to a new memo by a leading defender of religious liberty.
First Liberty Institute issued its guidance this week on “Churches and Religious Institutions Facing Coronavirus Restrictions on Gathering,” asserting that churches should continue to serve their local communities but do so while following government guidelines.
“Church and state have an opportunity to work together to reduce the impact of the virus on our communities while encouraging calm and preserving liberty,” the memo says.
Restrictions on churches are likely constitutional as long as they are “temporary” and “evenly applied” to other large gatherings, the memo says.
“Government may not substantially burden the free exercise of religion unless it has a compelling reason for doing so, and even then, it must use the least burdensome approach that achieves that compelling interest,” it says. “Temporary action to reduce the spread of a global pandemic is almost certainly a compelling reason, so long as the government is not treating religious institutions unfairly compared with how it treats other comparable gatherings.
“For instance,” the memo says, “if state officials require churches to ensure that each service has no more than 250 persons, but officials do not require a nearby theater to do likewise, the state may have engaged in religious discrimination.”
Any “extraordinary state action” to “limit the peaceful gathering of American citizens must be temporary,” the memo says.
“Permanent restrictions on the peaceful assembly of American citizens – and especially those gathered to exercise their religion – violate the U.S. Constitution and are not permissible,” it says.
Churches, the memo says, “should continue to serve their local communities.”
“America’s churches and religious institutions have played a central role in caring for their local community throughout history,” the memo continues. “Whether that is through acts of mercy, providing shelter, or simply being a source of encouragement and peace in times of crisis, America’s religious institutions should continue to be a source of strength through service to their local community, especially as their communities may be particularly burdened during this pandemic.”
Meanwhile, many Christian leaders the past week have said believers have an obligation to follow government orders out of a duty to love their neighbors.
R. Albert Mohler Jr., president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, made such an argument when announcing the school was moving to online-only for the near future.
“For Christians, the command to love our neighbor now looks very different given the realities of the coronavirus,” he said. “… We cannot meet where we would otherwise meet; we cannot go where we would otherwise go – and we acknowledge all of this in order to try and slow down the spread of COVID-19.”
Photo courtesy: AEJ Images/Sparrow Stock
Michael Foust has covered the intersection of faith and news for 20 years. His stories have appeared in Baptist Press, Christianity Today, The Christian Post, the Leaf-Chronicle, the Toronto Star and the Knoxville News-Sentinel.