Religious Liberty 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 and religious exercise 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. Religious schools transitioned to remote learning or took other appropriate measures to protect their students, teachers, and parents. 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 religious exercise 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 above 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.