By Ian Lovett
Political and legal battles center on tension between the right to worship and protecting public health; ‘We’re subordinating God to a “nonessential” part of our country’
As public life across the U.S. has nearly shut down to slow the coronavirus, religious spaces have become a battleground.
In the fight over whether social-distancing rules should be enforced at houses of worship—some jurisdictions have specifically exempted them; others haven’t—pastors have been legally charged and lawsuits filed. In Kansas, the state supreme court had to resolve a feud between the governor and the legislature.
With the approach of Easter, the holiest day on the Christian calendar, the conflict has grown more charged.
Public-health officials say any gathering risks spreading the virus, and only establishments essential to keeping people alive—like hospitals and supermarkets—should remain open to the public. Advocates for religious liberty say worshiping in person is no less essential than buying groceries.
“Freedom of religion, meaning church services, is [being] treated no differently than a high-school football game,” said Terrence Shea Cook, a lawyer representing a Virginia churchgoer who sued the governor this week over regulations limiting religious gatherings to 10 people. “As opposed to all these commercial exceptions where operations are able to continue.”
Representatives for Gov. Ralph Northam, a Democrat, didn’t respond to a request for comment on the lawsuit.
Marci Hamilton, a law professor at the University of Pennsylvania, said states have a compelling interest in preserving life and, therefore, shutting down large gatherings.