Magazine article Church & State

A Worldwide Pandemic Has Shuttered Millions of Restaurants, Stores and Shops-But Some Houses of Worship Are Demanding Special Treatment

Magazine article Church & State

A Worldwide Pandemic Has Shuttered Millions of Restaurants, Stores and Shops-But Some Houses of Worship Are Demanding Special Treatment

Article excerpt

Millions of Americans hunkered down in their homes in March and April sheltering themselves from the coronavirus pandemic, venturing out only to buy food and supplies.

But at Life Tabernacle Church near Baton Rouge, it was business as usual for Pastor Tony Spell. Days after Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards (D) issued an order banning gatherings of more than 50 people, Spell held a service at his church that drew more than 1,000 worshippers. He used buses to bring people in from the surrounding area.

"If they close every door in this city, then I will close my doors," Spell told CNN. "But you can't say the retailers are essential but the church is not. That is a persecution of the faith."

Spell claimed that members of his Pentecostal flock were practicing social distancing--usually defined as one person keeping six feet away from another--but YouTube clips of the service showed attendees mingling freely, singing side by side and hugging.

Spell had earlier told reporters that he's skeptical that the pandemic is all that serious, blaming it on a political effort to weaken President Donald Trump. He also asserted that if anyone in his congregation got sick, he could cure them through faith healing.

"It's not a concern," Spell told a local TV station. "The virus, we believe, is politically motivated. We hold our religious rights dear, and we are going to assemble no matter what someone says."

Spell remained defiant even after he was cited by local officials. Hours after receiving a citation on March 31, Spell held an evening service. He vowed that if police took him away, a member of the church would step up and run the service.

The Louisiana pastor was not alone. As the pandemic shut down ordinary life for most Americans in the face of shelter-in-place orders from governors that closed offices, restaurants, bars, stores or other establishments, some religious leaders decided they weren't going to cease holding in-person services, setting the stage for an epic clash between church and state.

In Ohio, where Gov. Mike DeWine (R) had ordered people to stay home if at all possible, Solid Rock Church in the town of Lebanon kept its doors open for services.

"We are respectful of every individual's right to choose either to come to our service or to watch online," the church said in a statement posted on its website. "We do believe that it is important for our doors to remain open for whomever to come to worship and pray during this time of great challenge in our country. "

CNN visited the church in early April and saw about 70 people enter the building. Prior to the service, many were outside hugging one another and shaking hands. A woman was who driving away after the gathering told CNN she was not worried about getting sick because "I'm covered in Jesus's blood."

Part of the problem is that Ohio, like several other states, issued orders that were ambiguous when it came to houses of worship, outright exempted them from bans on large gatherings or included houses of worship on lists of services that could stay open because they're deemed "essential. "

Americans United is working to rectify the problem by reminding governors that exempting houses of worship from the "no gatherings" rules or allowing them to open while similarly situated secular entities must close is not only bad public policy, it's unconstitutional.

As Americans United points out, banning large gatherings for secular events such as concerts, lectures, sporting matches and others but allowing them for religious services grants houses of worship an illegal form of preference. Nevertheless, exemptions were promulgated in a number of states.

The problem is especially acute in Michigan, where Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (D) in late March issued a stay-at-home executive order "to suspend activities that are not necessary to sustain or protect life." Violations of the order can result in penalties, but Whitmer lifted those penalties for houses of worship, effectively nullifying the order for religious gatherings. …

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