Can Governors Force Churches To Close During Pandemic

Photo Credits: Slate

Gathering for worship is not just a choice made by individual but for many religious traditions it is an essential part of practice. Some Jewish practices require groups of people, Catholics gather during Mass and Muslims also tend to gather during Friday's congregational prayer. But these gatherings are not safe during the coronavirus pandemic. Doctors and experts suggest that in order to stop the spreading of COVID-19 we must stay at home and avoid contact with other people.

So what is a church to do in the time of the coronavirus pandemic? The safest thing is to cancel services and officials worldwide are doing just that, imposing restrictions.

During a pandemic or some natural disaster, state and city officials are entitled to enact orders aimed to stop pandemic, prevent further damage caused by natural disaster or remedy the damage already taken. One of the current examples in the United States is a stay-at-home order issued this March by Indiana governor Eric Holcom, a Republican. Holcom's order did not grant an exemption for churches but, on the other hand, his statement, as Patheos reports, made it pretty clear that churches were to be closed due to COVID-19: "Large gatherings, including church services, will be canceled to slow the spread of COVID-19. Religious leaders are encouraged to continue livestreaming services while practicing social distancing with one another."

But not every state is following this course. There are states where the governors have urged churches to cancel gatherings but haven't imposed restrictions. The examples are Michigan and Ohio, and Michigan's governor. Gretchen Whitmer tried to explain this by citing "the separation of church and state" and claiming, according to Patheos, that “that’s an area that we don’t have the ability to enforce and control.” This is not a valid argument and certainly this is not true. Governors have every right to impose restrictions on church gatherings during this crisis as long as the rule doesn't single out religious gatherings specifically.

According to Patheos, policies don’t violate religious freedom laws if they’re created in order to save people’s lives, said Michael Moreland, director of the Ellen H. McCullen Center for Law, Religion and Public Policy at Villanova University. “So long as those restrictions are neutral and applicable to everybody, religious institutions have to abide by them,” he said. States already do this with some other regulations and none of this is against the state and church separation rule and it is not discrimination when it applies to everyone.

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