The challenge with reopening Churches

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Church with closed sign at front door
The challenge with reopening churches

COVID-19 clusters have been linked to churches

In most states places of worship are now allowed to conduct religious services. However, how safe is it to reopen them versus the legal permission to do so during an ongoing pandemic that has not hit its testing target?

Many of the churches that flouted social distancing guidelines became hot spots in their regions.

The guideline restriction placed on places of worship has been like stepping on a landmine for states that want them closed like Massachusetts Governor Baker. Since the beginning of the states’ stay-at-home advisory in March, most churches have complied, but not all. In early May more than 260 ministers from across the Commonwealth expressed their grievances in a signed letter to Baker, demanding their places of worship reopen with social distancing protocols—before Baker finally lifted the ban.

“I want to open churches in a responsible and safe way to do that,” Baker stated on the May 21 segment of WGBH’s Boston Public Radio. However, reopening places of worship as “essentials businesses” would most likely not be on the governor’s Phase 1 list of his 4-Phase COVID-19 reopening plan. Still, Baker stated, “I had pressure around Constitutional issues and couldn’t ignore it.”

The question of what limits local and state officials can place on religious practices in the name of public safety is an important one. First, these limitations should be measured by the gravity of the crisis. Second, these limitations should be assessed if they are being singled out and discriminated against for stricter treatment. Neither was the case for the 260 ministers who signed a letter to Baker demanding their places of worship be allowed to reopen. They were saying it was an infringement of freedom of religion, and freedom of assembly to keep them closed to the public. And, with these First Amendment freedoms, in my opinion, comes responsibility.

COVID-19 continues to pose an existential threat to public health and safety. Many of the churches that flouted social distancing guidelines became hot spots in their regions. They were increasing infection and death rates in states like Arkansas, California, and Kentucky to name a few.

Woman wearing a mask while praying
Photo by Engin Akyurt

While we don’t know all the ways the virus is spread, the primary mode of transmission is from respiratory droplets caused by coughing or sneezing in close contact. The request for churches to suspend their usual in-person gatherings is not curtailing worship. There are other ways to worship that can be employed like virtual streaming. The request is a mitigation strategy to temporarily press a pause button on one form of religious expression—crowd size—that can be identified with COVID-19 transmission.

If you want confusion in this delicate balance between church and state, and First Amendment rights and the right to protect public health, simply add Trump to the mix. Trump made it emphatically clear that if governors did not follow his recommendations allowing in-person religious services to resume, he would “override” them.

“Some governors have deemed liquor stores and abortion clinics as essential, but have left out churches and other houses of worship, it’s not right,” Trump said at the White House. “So I’m correcting this injustice and calling houses of worship essential. I call upon governors to allow our churches and places of worship to open right now,” Today.com reported.

Trump, however, exploits the issue for his campaign re-election. And, it has been like stepping on a landmine for the CDC. The guideline restriction on places of worship suggested by the CDC was to avoid virus resurgence. Initially, Trump objected to the original CDC’s reopening guidelines as “too prescriptive” and infringing on religious liberty. The 38-page watered-down document had no reopening instructions for places of worship.

I was on an Interfaith Community Leadership Zoom call for the Cambridge clergy to discuss the Governor of Massachusetts’ Mandatory Safety Standards and Checklist for Houses of Worship. Confusion abounded more than clarity about safety as we compared the CDC’s earlier guidelines advising gatherings of no more than ten people to the governor’s new instructions, limiting places of worship occupancy to 40 percent. Baker, no doubt, was under pressure not to be “too prescriptive.”

Now, to avoid stepping on Trump’s landmine, the new CDC guidelines state the following:

“The information offered is non-binding public health guidance for consideration only; it is not meant to regulate or prescribe standards for interactions of faith communities in houses of worship. Any decision to modify specific religious rites, rituals and services should be made by religious leaders.”

COVID-19 clusters have been linked to churches. In this pandemic, the ongoing challenge for places of worship will be how to reopen and to protect public health. In an already divided country, health precautions should not be weaponized as an infringement on religious liberty. Instead, they should be seen as essential for maintaining the well-being and sustainability of a worshiping body.

In Massachusetts, the number of deaths due to COVID-19 is declining. Hot spots like places of worship can continue to help in its decline.