Author’s note: I live in California. The lockdown restrictions in the US during the pandemic vary from state to state. County to county even. So, my experiences below can only come from what I have experienced as a resident of California. However, churches across the US are trying to make their case as vital services, and meeting with levels of resistance.
As numbers of reported COVID-19 infections are on the upswing, more and more people are taking to social media to criticize churches who want to keep their doors open. For many non-believers, church services are seen as little more than large social club-type gatherings where people pack into seats and are coerced out of their hard-earned money. Is this the reason churches want to open? Are they just doing it to line their pockets? Or is there something else going on here?
In most articles I write, this would be the part where I start making the case for the Christian worldview. In this article, however, I’m focusing more on what allows that to happen and less on the truth claims that Christianity makes itself. And this same thing that allows me as a Christian to make my case allows every other worldview to freely make their case as well.
From a societal perspective, the issue at hand is the First Amendment – which protects 5 basic rights; the right to speech, the right to religion, the right of the free press, the right to assemble, and the right to petition the government.
Notice the wording of the Amendment. It starts out with “Congress shall make no law”. This wording means that the list of things that follow, these are rights people inherently have. They are not given to us by the government. This is an important distinction between the US Constitution and many other forms of government. Because if the government can give you rights, then it can take them away. But, for us, the First Amendment is the government’s agreement with its citizens that it won’t do anything to take these rights away from us.
The Constitution makes these institutions and activities paramount to what America is because they protect the marketplace of ideas. It is the people and their speech that are at the top of the food chain of ideas and not the government. Any act of the government to silence these institutions is the government overstepping its power.
Regarding churches suing to be open, the question that has to be asked is this; are institutions and activities that revolve around the First Amendment – churches, synagogues, mosques, the press, the right to assemble – being discriminated against compared to other businesses.
Before we can ask if religious organizations have been discriminated against, let’s establish what “discriminated” means. Simply put, it means “treated differently”. If other businesses are deemed essential and allowed to be open, then places of worship are allowed to be open. The First Amendment ensures that these institutions are essential.
In the case of religious centers, they have been discriminated against throughout the pandemic. Places like gyms and restaurants were allowed to conduct business when churches were not. In the beginning, churches were not even allowed to have outdoor worship, but gym owners were able to set up spin classes in their parking lots. Which – cool. Let ’em at it, I say. I’ve been cheering on businesses that have found creative ways to both stay open and follow guidelines set in place. The point, though – and the basis for the lawsuits being brought before the Supreme Court – is that you can’t have two different standards. Also – the same rights that allow people to gather and protest (which they should be able to if they feel something is wrong) – grant people the right to gather and worship if they want to. There have been multiple protests for a variety of reasons this year – an activity also protected by the First Amendment. So, if these activities are allowed then so is attending a worship center.
The frustrating part is that most churches – given the opportunity – have decided to either only do services online or do socially distanced services outdoors following all given protocols. There are, of course, a few churches in the area where I live who have decided to go against local and state orders and open their doors wide to pack their services. I know there will be charges and jibes that they are doing this to fill their pockets, but this is wrong. There is a difference between worshipping on a Facebook Live stream vs being together in person. Just as it would be different to do Thanksgiving or Christmas in a big Zoom call compared to being seated around a table together as a family. I’m not trying to say we should try to all cram into a room right now. I’m just pointing out that the experiences are different and this is the motivation to get back together; not to fill the offering plates.
With all that said, I think the churches that are ignoring the regulations put in place are wrong to do so. A few months ago, I gave a message to our (empty) church saying as much. As Christians, we are to follow the law up until it asks us to go against God. Right now, the laws are not keeping us from worshipping at all, just…. different. So, make the legal case that the law is being applied unfairly. But, until then, follow the regulations as given.