Since the outbreak and escalation of the coronavirus pandemic in March, pastors and faith leaders throughout the United States have cooperated with local and state officials in doing their part to “flatten the curve” of the pathogen by either canceling or transitioning in-person church services to online platforms.
For anyone born over the course of the last one-hundred years, the changes in weekly worship habits have been unprecedented. In fact, church services during the Spanish flu epidemic between 1918 and 1920 carried on as usual – for good or bad.
“HISTORY’S DARKEST EASTER,” headlined the New York Times on April 1, 1918. “10,000 AT ST. PATRICK’S.”
One-hundred and two years later, the vast majority of America’s churches were literally dark yesterday, with many of the larger ones having pre-produced services during the week. Others met with skeleton crews to broadcast celebrations via Facebook or on their websites. Some are closed altogether.
Given the highly contagious nature of the coronavirus and corresponding calls for social distancing to combat it, it makes perfect sense for churches to comply with state directives to temporarily cancel services.
At the same time, there is a right way and a wrong way to both approach and communicate with churches, and there have been some recent examples of heavy-handedness that deserve to be called out.
For example, Kentucky Governor Andy Beshear threatened to have police take down license plate numbers for anyone who came to church. The plate information would be turned in to the local health departments, and the license holders forced to be quarantined for 14 days.
It gets worse.
Mayor Greg Fischer of Louisville responded to a church’s call for a “drive-in” worship service by banning all gatherings anywhere – inside church buildings, outside in parking lots or even inside people’s homes.
In Greenville, Mississippi, police fined every worshipper $500 for attending Thursday night’s drive-in service at King James Bible Baptist Church. Thankfully, a U.S. District judge stepped in and declared the order unconstitutional.
What’s behind this aggressive and seemingly antagonistic behavior towards people of faith?
To be charitable, there’s a lot of fear and panic, and I’m sure many state officials are trying to figure out the most effective way to attack and contain the virus. Officials do have a responsibility to keep citizens safe, and sometimes restricting access to unsafe areas may be wise.
But fining people $500 for worshipping in their cars? Seriously?
Keep in mind some of the same officials who have been aggressively monitoring church services and plans have also defended keeping Planned Parenthood and liquor stores open.
Apparently, abortion and liquor are “essential” – but faith and prayer are non-essential?
What a curious – and challenging – world we live in.
I was heartened to hear over the weekend that U.S. Attorney General William Barr is pledging to look into cases where officials appear to have overstepped their authority. It may be too late to right any wrongs from Easter, but there are important principles at stake here regarding our deeply cherished religious liberties.