In casinos, hundreds to thousands of gamblers gather for hours on end in close proximity to eat and drink, pull slots, and handle poker chips every day of the week. In churches, people gather for about an hour, usually once a week, and generally do not interact with one another as much as casino patrons do. So how does opening the one while restricting the other keep the public safe? We can’t find a good answer. Policies like this simply discriminate against religious believers.
As the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops celebrates Religious Freedom Week, we are concerned that the government is discriminating against religious institutions in a way that violates the freedoms protected in the First Amendment by our founding fathers. The government is playing favorites, and choosing secular institutions over religious ones. That’s as wrong as it is unconstitutional.
Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, government authorities approved the opening of businesses necessary to support people’s physical needs. That’s understandable. We could not have survived without grocery stores, pharmacies, and gas stations, for example.
But the world’s great religions insist that people’s spiritual needs are just as real and just as important as our physical needs. Indeed, Christianity makes the bold claim that they are more important, because they affect us eternally. As Jesus said, “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.”
When public officials allow people to gather in secular settings but not religious ones, the government effectively declares that religious practice is not really necessary. And that reveals not only a disregard for the First Amendment but also a complete misunderstanding of people of faith and why they gather to worship.
Our founders understood that civil government would try to overstep its bounds, which is why the First Amendment’s Free Exercise Clause is controversial yet necessary. “Free exercise” does not mean a religious group can do whatever it wants, but the fact that the right isn’t absolute doesn’t mean it isn’t strong and extensive.
The right applies especially to the central religious act—that of public worship. Many people don’t understand this because they don’t know what public worship means to believers. They think of religion as a purely private matter; therefore, public worship is simply people engaging in a private matter together. They can do it just as well by themselves, so there is no harm in closing churches.
But it is a harm and a burden—an acceptable one when necessary and all groups are treated equally, but not when casinos and fitness centers can open to 50 percent capacity (as is the case in Nevada, for instance), and churches can’t have more than 50 people in them.
We speak as Christians, one of us an evangelical and one of us a Catholic. Our traditions are united by our love of Christ even if our theologies differ on some points. But both our traditions hold that the regular gathering of believers is central to our faith, as written in Hebrews 10:25.
So what of those officials who are happy ignoring—or, in some cases, joining—protestors who fill the streets in violation of social distancing mandates while restricting corporate worship? Adding insult to injury, some of those officials have also been reluctant to prosecute vandals who have defaced church buildings.
It seems government is more than willing to abuse its power in shuttering churches, but equally willing to give up that power when those churches are defaced.
For some government authorities, religious belief and expression no longer seem to warrant vigorous protection. But civil liberties are interconnected. If we allow this unconstitutional disregard of our freedoms, what other freedoms will be violated next? Let us pray and join together in opposition to this injustice.
Writen by The Most Reverend Charles J. Chaput , archbishop emeritus of Philadelphia. and Michael P. Farris, president and CEO of Alliance Defending Freedom.