COVID-19 continues to pose an existential threat to public health and safety, and many of the churches that flouted social distancing guidelines became hot spots in their regions, increasing infection and death rates in states like Arkansas, California, and Kentucky, to name a few.
On May 11, Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker said in press conference about future reopening plans: “In the first phase, you should probably start with the things that don’t have a lot of direct contact with customers, or things where, if there is direct contact for customers, it’s the kind of direct contact you believe you could really carefully manage.”
Churches throughout Massachusetts have been closed since late March due to COVID-19’s rapid transmission. But earlier today, Baker revealed Phase 1 of the state’s four-phase reopening plan, which includes allowing places of worship to open immediately, but with special “guidelines” and “outdoor services encouraged.”
Most churches complied with the states’ stay-at-home advisory. However, some pastors, primarily of small independent congregations, contested that the governor’s restrictions infringed on their First Amendment rights granting them freedom of religion and assembly. Earlier this month, more than 260 ministers from across the Commonwealth expressed grievances about their situation in a signed letter to Baker, demanding their places of worship reopen with social distancing protocols.
Churches are just [as] important as—in my estimation, of course, more important than—golf courses and liquor stores being open,” James Montoro, a pastor at Pioneer Valley Baptist Church in Westfield, told News10 Boston. “I feel like if Home Depot can operate at 40%, churches ought to be able to operate at the same.”
On the surface, Montoro’s request seems fair. However, this group of pastors are more concerned about their pockets than their people. Their parishioners’ average age is 50 years and older, a group hard hit by the virus.
For African American churches here and across the country, adhering to CDC guidelines about social distancing, whether their local and state authorities do or not, is a no-brainer. Black communities are hardest hit by COVID-19, and many of these churches have congregants with preexisting conditions whose jobs put them on the frontline battling the virus. These ministers have partnered with local community health centers to help inform their communities on how to stay safe instead of attending in-person worship. For example, Community Health Northwest Florida has assisted local pastors and faith leaders in rolling out a community-wide stay-at-home campaign called #WaitDontCongregate.
Many faith communities, like the black church, have adjusted to social distancing. These communities have provided worshippers with spiritual and emotional care and pastoral counseling with video streaming or drive-in options. Faith traditions that use prayer books, hymnals, and religious texts as a worshiping body are not lost nor desecrated if now done virtually.
However, the question of what limits local and state officials can place on religious practices in the name of public safety is an important one. First, these limitations should be measured by the gravity of the crisis. Second, these limitations should be assessed if they are being singled out and discriminated against for stricter treatment. Neither was the case for the 260 ministers who signed a letter to Baker demanding their places of worship reopen contesting infringement of freedom of religion and freedom of assembly.
Furthermore, with First Amendment freedoms comes responsibility. COVID-19 continues to pose an existential threat to public health and safety, and many of the churches that flouted social distancing guidelines became hot spots in their regions, increasing infection and death rates in states like Arkansas, California, and Kentucky, to name a few.
Second, while we don’t know all the ways the virus is spread, the primary mode of transmission is from respiratory droplets caused by coughing or sneezing in close contact. The request for churches to suspend their usual in-person gatherings is not curtailing worship because other ways to worship can be employed like virtual streaming. The request is a mitigation strategy to temporarily press a pause button on one form of religious expression—crowd size—that can be linked to COVID-19 transmission.
Some places of worship will resume services this week. Some might ask older parishioners and those with preexisting conditions to stay at home. However, First Church in Cambridge will stay closed to help mitigate the spread of the virus.
“First Church will not open until everyone can come back,” Reverend Adam Lawrence Dyer told me. “It’s an equity question. If an 89-year-old woman cannot come back, neither should a 21-year-old male athlete with no underlying conditions return.”