Apr 23, 2020
It now appears that the legacy of the coronavirus pandemic is going to include an ongoing, sometimes ugly debate on the merits of closing churches and suspending religious services to halt the spread of COVID-19. The argument is one of those unfortunate cases where two important goods – here, religious liberty and public health – are set in opposition, with no one likely to emerge a clear winner.
Here are a few straws in the wind. Protestant pastors in California and New Mexico and possibly other states are suing to protest church shutdowns. In Kentucky, a Baptist church was said to be planning a federal lawsuit after state troopers were told to note the license numbers of cars parked outside Easter services with a view to telling owners to self-quarantine for two weeks.
In the Catholic sector, things have generally been calmer – but not much. Virtually all pastors followed their bishops’ orders to close their churches and suspend public Masses and other ceremonies or allow them only under the most stringent limits. There was – still is – some grumbling about this, but few visible acts of non-compliance.
The first diocese in the country to relax the church lockdown was Las Cruces, New Mexico, where shortly after Easter Bishop Peter Baldacchino ordered a limited reopening of churches for Mass, with no more than five people allowed inside and other congregants staying in their cars. First Things editor R.R. Reno, usually a serious commentator on religious affairs, hailed this as “prudent, decisive leadership.” Conceding good intentions on the bishop’s part, others nonetheless wondered.
People who object to forced church closings regularly argue their case in terms of religious liberty. This presumably is what lay behind a Justice Department spokesperson’s announcement that Attorney General William Barr was “monitoring” the situation. “While social distancing policies are appropriate during this emergency,” the spokesperson added, “they must be applied evenhandedly and not single out religious organizations.”