Barring Church Services Isn’t Religious Persecution
With most Americans staying home as much as possible and avoiding other people like, well, the plague, it's surprising to learn that some churches are holding Sunday services to bring parishioners together to worship. Even more surprising, some states are letting them.
On Wednesday, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who had refused to close the state's beaches to spring break revelers, finally issued a stay-at-home order. It exempts people who must venture outside to "obtain or provide essential services or conduct essential activities." High on his list of essential activities: "attending religious services conducted in churches, synagogues and houses of worship."
Most of the nation's clergy do not see packing pews as defensible, much less essential, during this pandemic. Most have shifted to virtual worship, so their members don't transmit or contract a disease that can kill. The faithful can also find spiritual sustenance in prayer, Bible reading or helping those in need.
But some religious believers have chosen to go on worshiping as they always have, and never mind the risk. A recent poll found that 17 percent of regular churchgoers are still showing up in person.
A pastor at an evangelical megachurch in Tampa, Florida defied the local sheriff by holding Sunday services and was arrested for violating the county restrictions, but he says he may do it again on Easter. Fire marshals in Brooklyn shut down a Hasidic Jewish wedding celebration that included more than 200 people. A Louisiana minister who ignored the state ban on gatherings of more than 50 people was cited on a misdemeanor charge.
"Never been more proud to be persecuted for the faith like my savior," responded Rev. Tony Spell. The Christians who were fed to the lions might say, "You call that persecution?" But saying Spell was persecuted for his faith is like saying the Unabomber was locked up for bad-mouthing capitalism.
Had Spell gathered all those people for a block party or a pep rally, he would have gotten the same summons. It's safe to say that neither the governor of Louisiana nor the local police chief has any desire to crucify Christians, even metaphorically. Being religious didn't get the pastor in trouble; it just didn't exempt him from following the law.
Other states have chosen to accommodate gross irresponsibility as long as it is carried out in the name of the almighty. Governors in Michigan, Ohio, Kansas and New Mexico have specifically allowed places of worship to hold gatherings above the number allowed in other settings.
Maybe some pastors think faith acts as a vaccine against this illness. Maybe some think the disease is no different from the flu. Then there is R. R. Reno, editor of the conservative Christian publication First Things, who seems intent on qualifying his faith for inclusion in The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.
"The massive shutdown of just about everything reflects the spirit of our age, which regards the prospect of death as the supreme evil to be avoided at all costs," he wrote in March. "In a time of pandemic — a time when Satan whips up in us all fears of isolation, abandonment, and death — churches must not join the stampede of fear."
I'm no theologian, but I'm pretty sure that if Satan exists, he'd be more than happy to see Christians crowding into churches during a pandemic. You would think a form of faith that regards itself as "pro-life" would not deliberately expose believers to the real possibility of needless death — or send those believers out to endanger others.
Religious lunacy is perfectly legal, but there's no reason that states should strive to give it a boost. Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (D-MI) suggested that she had to exempt religious services to preserve the constitutional separation of church and state. She's wrong.
It's not a violation of religious freedom to require church buildings to comply with fire and safety codes that apply to other buildings. And it's no affront to the First Amendment to stop churches from amassing crowds in a way that endangers public health during an emergency.
If some pastors won't act to prevent disease, public officials should do it for them. "The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep," said Jesus of Nazareth. It's a bad shepherd who sees the wolf and pays no heed.
Steve Chapman blogs at http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/opinion/chapman. Follow him on Twitter @SteveChapman13 or at https://www.facebook.com/stevechapman13. To find out more about Steve Chapman and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.