In-person religious worship and the COVID pandemic
Americans possess fundamental rights to freely exercise their religion and assemble when doing so. Those rights have always been limited by what is necessary to protect public safety. In the context of a pandemic, this can mean that the government can temporarily limit communal worship if truly necessary, so long as it does so on equal terms with other activities, showing no special disfavor to religion.
When COVID-19 first reached the United States, little was known about transmission and infection rates. Both governments and religious organizations took immediate steps to keep people safe. Overwhelmingly, a variety of religious denominations voluntarily ceased in-person worship services before government stay-at-home orders were issued. After months of shelter-in-place orders and temporary prohibitions on everything from daycare to in-person worship services, governments started to make plans to reopen businesses and social activities. Some governments rightly treated religious congregations as essential and made plans for them to resume services alongside businesses. However, many others made the mistake of reopening businesses and allowing mass protests while holding worship back.
Governments have state and federal constitutional obligations to respect the free exercise of religion. While many states and localities have worked to impose the least burdensome restrictions on houses of worship, others imposed unjust burdens on religion not felt by secular entities. The map below shows the states that have worked hard to accommodate religion wherever possible, the states that are treating religious gatherings equally to similar non-religious gatherings, and the states where religion has been subordinated to similar secular services.
Becket stepped in to defend the Minnesota Catholic Conference and The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod in Minnesota when Governor Tim Walz issued an unjust order, subordinating religion to the economic interests of the State. Thankfully, when the religious communities stood up for their rights, Governor Walz changed his order, reducing limitations on religious exercise.
Becket also defended the Roman Catholic Diocese of Madison. When Madison/Dane County abruptly changed its reopening order to uniquely disadvantage religion, Becket sent a letter to County Executive Joe Parisi and Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway warning them that continuing this discriminatory treatment of in-person worship violated federal and state law. Madison/Dane County too recognized its error and amended its order to return houses of worship to equal footing with secular services.
- “A Q&A for churches on government restrictions with a religious liberty attorney,” Jeff Pickering, Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (April 15, 2020)
- “The First Amendment Faithful,” The Editorial Board, Wall Street Journal (May 20, 2020)
- “Minnesota’s ‘Essential’ Churches,” The Editorial Board, Wall Street Journal (May 24, 2020)
- “As churches reopen, Supreme Court faces balancing act between physical and spiritual health,” Richard Wolf, USA Today (May 28, 2020)
- “President Trump Backs Reopening Churches in States With COVID-19 Restrictions,” Lauretta Brown, National Catholic Register (May 29, 2020)
- “Supreme Court, in rare late-night ruling, says California may enforce certain restrictions on religious gatherings,” Robert Barnes, The Washington Post (May 30, 2020)
- “Covid Double Standards,” James Freeman, Wall Street Journal (June 4, 2020)
- “Many Faithful Say It’s Time to Gather. Some Governors Disagree.” Lindsey Van Ness, Pew (June 11, 2020)