One of the fiercest debates during the coronavirus pandemic involved the right of people of faith to congregate.
Almost all houses of worship shut down in March when the pandemic began and initial lockdowns were announced. But, by May, when Gov. Gavin Newsom had begun to plot a course for the gradual reopening of other businesses and venues as cases went down, faith leaders began to question why houses of worship were way down the list, grouped with entertainment venues such as movie theaters and sports arenas.
California, and in particular, Southern California, became the epicenter of this debate that pitted the government and public health officials against some churches that insisted on keeping their doors open. President Donald Trump threw his support behind churches remaining open for in-person worship reiterating their role as an “essential service.”
Even as Los Angeles County has begun allowing indoor services with restrictions, officials are still recommending keeping them outdoors if possible.
Heart of the Debate
This has been an unprecedented year, especially because of government orders that required houses of worship to be shut down for extended periods of time, said Bob Tyler, a Murrieta-based attorney who has been counseling hundreds of churches nationwide on this matter.
“It’s been a shocker for those of us who have been involved in defending religious liberty for so many years,” he said. “How on earth did we get to this point where the government could shut down churches? Under the free exercise clause of the First Amendment, the government will never prevent us from sharing our faith or worshiping our God in the way we’ve done for 2,000 years.”
Tyler says California has remained a battleground for religious freedom throughout the pandemic because the laws passed by Newsom have been draconian and unacceptable to many churches.
In many communities, faith is often central to people’s health, said Vickie Mays, professor of health policy and management at UCLA’s Fielding School of Public Health.
“People who are participating actively in religious gatherings have higher levels of social support and people they can depend on,” she said. “In lower income and minority communities, churches play a really important role by providing food and serving as sources of information. So, it’s an interesting dilemma.”
But, Mays said, there are religious freedoms and then, there are moral imperatives.
“There needs to be a balance between the two,” she said. “Just because you have the right to do it, doesn’t mean you should do it. We may differ in our religious beliefs and how we worship, but in America, we see ourselves as a nation. We do certain things for the good of all. And that’s what this issue comes to. We have our rights. But what is our moral imperative?”
Lockdowns and court battles
In May, a group of mostly evangelical Christian churches in the Inland Empire declared that they would open on May 31 on the Day of the Pentecost.
By and large, houses of worship including churches, mosques, synagogues, Hindu and Sikh temples in Southern California have switched to virtual services or held outdoor worship when the state began allowing it. They’ve celebrated festivals like Easter, Passover, Ramadan, Diwali, Baisakhi, Rosh Hashanah and Hanukkah with drive-thru festivities and virtual meets. Roman Catholic parishes in Southern California have adhered to state and local health orders throughout the pandemic.
But a significant number of churches remained open, many in violation of state health orders. Some opened up for indoor worship while requiring masks and physical distancing, there were others that met indoors without face coverings or distancing. In several cities, churches became embroiled in legal battles with county health departments. The rule changes that came with surges in infections also frustrated many in the faith community.
New guidelines from Gov. Newsom in July discouraged singing or chanting indoors due to fears that it increases the spread of respiratory droplets, thus increasing the risk of spreading COVID-19 among a crowd. This led to a lawsuit against the governor from Harvest Rock Church and Harvest International Ministry Inc., which has campuses in Pasadena, Irvine and Corona, alleging that the ban on singing violated their right to religious freedom. In its lawsuit, the church contended that the failure to gather in person for religious worship services “is disobedience to the Lord for which (the church) will be held divinely accountable.
The most high-profile battle, watched nationally, erupted between Pastor John MacArthur and his Grace Community Church, a Sun Valley megachurch, which repeatedly congregated with thousands of people in its sanctuary. When the church didn’t stop doing so after repeated warnings from county health officials, the county and church traded lawsuits.
The county asked for a restraining order citing state and county health orders, while the church maintained its members had the constitutional right to congregate. The church has been represented by Jenna Ellis, the attorney also representing Trump in his bid to overturn his 2020 election loss.
In Chino Hills, Calvary Chapel’s congregants led by Pastor Jack Hibbs, continue to meet without restrictions. In Riverside County, the 412 Church led by Pastor Tim Thompson also meets without masks or social distancing.
The U.S. Supreme Court has also continued to take the side of religious freedom, ruling in cases from New York, California, New Jersey and Colorado that states may not impose stricter standards on houses of worship than they do on most commercial establishments.
Tyler said he anticipates the debate to continue into 2021 as Southern California continues to experience surge after surge of COVID-19 infections. He still holds that churches have the right under the U.S. constitution to congregate without masks or social distancing, if they choose to do so.
“There is this propaganda of fear that is being used successfully by government agencies to shutter houses of worship and small businesses, and force individuals into submission,” he said. “In the end, we’re going to be able to see that COVID-19 is real and it has affected some people, but in this case, the remedy is worse than the disease.”
Some people would prefer death over the depression and anxiety they suffer from as a result of being separated from their faith, Tyler said.
“They’d much rather take the risk of infection than lose their freedom of their right to worship,” he said, maintaining that them taking that risk does not affect others in the community who still have the option to wear masks and distance. Tyler believes public health officials and the government have set forth different sets of rules for houses of worship and large retail stores.
Mays says it’s not fair to equate a church to a large store.
“What’s going on inside a Costco or a grocery store is very different from what’s going on in church,” she said. “In there, they spray down the shopping carts and give you hand sanitizer. They will typically limit the number of people inside. They have protocols in place for workers and mask wearing.”
But, in church, when people are preaching or singing, where breath is constantly expelled, it’s a much different situation, Mays said.
“The two situations are not the same from the scientific point of risk analysis,” she said. “People are in stores for a shorter amount of time. Some churches are smaller. It’s not clear if they have good ventilation or are using hepa filters. It’s just very different.”
Public health officials has never had any problems with people worshiping, Mays said.
“There is a difference between the ability to be able to practice your faith and gathering to practice your faith,” she said. “Public health officials haven’t taken any role in controlling people’s ability to practice their faith. All they have done is encouraged doing so in a different way that aligns itself with the practice of public health, in the time of a global pandemic.”
Source: Orange County Register