The Struggle Between COVID-19 and the American Church
The COVID-19 Pandemic has become an unprecedented event for civilization. Many countries around the world practiced nationwide lockdowns to slow the spread of the virus, decongest crowded hospitals, and lower death rates. Currently, in the United States, there are approximately 14 million COVID-19 cases and 276,366 deaths resulting from the virus.
For the country, lockdowns first began at the beginning of March, and as the pandemic continues to rage on into the holidays, the American public has grown wearier. State-regulated mandates that have closed many “non-essential” businesses – some even for good – which has sparked harsh criticism against those in charge. The public questions the legality of such mandates, often citing the Constitution and their freedoms as reasons why they do not have to follow COVID-19 guidelines. Others wonder how long this pandemic will last as they watch their businesses crumble under the severe economic consequences of such lockdowns.
Normalcy – the ease of going out to shop, eat at a favorite restaurant, meet with friends and family – has been lost. Because of the chaos COVID-19 has caused, many places of worship have taken matters into their own hands. Churches, considered a “non-essential” business, have been asked to hold their services online or outdoors. But, under the argument that these mandates violate the right to religious freedom, churches are moving to open their doors, even when they are warned not to.
Churches and COVID-19 Mandates
Across the country, many churches have become outspoken towards COVID-19 mandates that hinder them from congregating within their church buildings. Awaken Church, a megachurch founded in San Diego, California, has recently decided to open their doors for in-person services for all of their branches scattered throughout San Diego County. In a statement the church provided for explanation as to why they are doing this, the head pastors of Awaken explain that this is to help heal those who are suffering at this time, claiming “this cannot be done virtually or at a distance.”
What has disturbed the San Diego Christian community is that while many businesses are being forced to close once again, strip clubs are able to stay open. The San Diego County Supervisor, Nathan Fletcher, asked that the least Awaken Church could do is to hold services outdoors. But Awaken Church continues to claim that there is no harm in holding their services indoors; they claim they have “‘Polar Ionization units’ [in their sanctuary that] kill[s] 99.4% of pathogens and viruses in the air, making our church locations the ‘safest’ places to be in San Diego,” according to a statement made on their official website.
Although this may be the case, San Diego County officials have traced COVID-19 outbreaks to Awaken Church gatherings (Times of San Diego). Many other churches in San Diego are coming together to fight for the reopening of their sanctuaries. As reported by ABC 10 San Diego News, a lawyer from a San Diego law firm is helping churches in the Southern California area in court to challenge such strict regulations for places of worship, citing “You can’t treat a church like a hair salon.”
Religious Freedom Amidst the Pandemic
The right to religious freedom in the United States is protected under the First Amendment under the country’s Constitution. This has been used by religious communities to fight against strict COVID-19 safety guidelines. Even the president, Donald Trump, stated in a press conference that churches should be deemed as essential and should be allowed to open once again.
The battle COVID-19 state-regulated mandates and the opening of churches bring the First Amendment into question – how far can political powers mandate freedoms given by U.S. law? Are regulations against churches illegal? Are they too much? If a church cannot congregate indoors, but they are still allowed to congregate outdoors and hold services online, what does this mean for places of worship? Where is the line drawn between health and safety regulations and the violation of religious freedom?
County and state officials argue that churches can stay open, they just cannot congregate indoors. They must find other means to hold their services, whether it be online or outdoors. But as Awaken Church has stated, the work of spiritual healing has to happen in person, and people are suffering; this is an “essential” service that needs to be open to the public.
Of course, this battle spans beyond Southern California. In New York, where one of the worst COVID-19 outbreaks in the United States occurred earlier this year, Governor Andrew Cuomo tried to crack down on places of worship.
According to the New York Times, these mandates seemed unnecessarily more strict than other mandates placed in the state, to the point where “six [U.S. Supreme Court] justices agreed that the Free Exercise Clause was probably violated by the governor’s order.” But what this article brings up is a great point in regards to this fight against strict regulations against places of worship: “The balance between Covid-19 precautions and civil liberties doesn’t need to be a partisan issue.” With the questions posed earlier, and the predicament between San Diego County and Awaken Church, the lines between morality, law, and freedoms instilled by the law have become muddied. But what we can see is that actually, both the church and the county are working for the public good, but their methods and ideologies are quite different.
As the government officials crackdown with regulations, strict health and safety codes, among other things, to stop the spread of COVID-19, the church also wants to bring (spiritual) healing to those suffering because of the economic, political, and social consequences many are facing because of this virus.
The article also argues that government officials need to step up to the plate as we are nearly a year into the pandemic, they should have learned from their mistakes. However, the pandemic, as long as it has continued, is still full of unknowns. Back in early June, many places were allowed to open up once again, but now during the holidays, the United States is entering one of the worst peaks the country has ever seen. The pandemic will forever be a learning experience for all parties involved.
Join us and protect religious freedom!