By Kelly Shackelford and R. Albert Mohler Jr.
As America struggles to reopen following the COVID-19 pandemic, some have openly suggested that, even though millions of Americans are returning to a variety of social settings—like retail businesses, laundromats and even cannabis dispensaries—attending church in-person is still too dangerous to be allowed.
Two months ago, we wrote that “asking houses of worship to briefly suspend large gatherings is neither hostile toward religion nor unreasonable in light of the threat.” For us, so long as those reasonable restrictions on our otherwise-precious civil right to religious liberty were temporary and evenly applied, the threat posed by COVID-19 supported reasonable intervention by state officials.
Unfortunately, some government officials quickly stepped over that reasonable and respectful line. Just days after our article, on Good Friday, First Liberty Institute filed a legal challenge against the mayor of Louisville (also home to the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary). A day later, Judge Justin Walker restrained Louisville’s actions, noting that, “Louisville has targeted religious worship by prohibiting drive-in church services, while not prohibiting a multitude of other non-religious drive-ins and drive-throughs—including, for example, drive-through liquor stores.”
Currently, states like California, New York, and Maine continue to impose unyielding restrictions upon the nation’s houses of worship. “The precise question of when restrictions on particular social activities should be lifted during the pandemic,” Chief Justice John Roberts recently suggested, “is a dynamic and fact-intensive matter subject to reasonable disagreement.”
Justice Kavanaugh, writing also for Justices Thomas and Gorsuch, disagreed in at least one important respect. He concluded that the plaintiff church raising its concern to the U.S. Supreme Court “would suffer irreparable harm from not being able to hold services on Pentecost Sunday in a way that comparable secular businesses and persons can conduct their activities.”
Treating churches unequally is wrong. Governors have erred to think that only the things that are material are “essential,” thus neglecting things like character, charity, hope, love, liberty and peace—the true society essentials that the church undergirds.
It makes no sense that Americans can now be trusted to go to the mall, or to their laundromat, but not to church. The Constitution specifically protects the free exercise of religion; it does not speak for the defense of laundromats. Believers just want their houses of worship to be treated equally and to be trusted to adhere to proper social distancing and hygiene practices, just like they do when they go about the rest of their daily lives in permitted social settings.
It’s unfortunate that our nation is embroiled in a dispute over the nation’s churches and houses of worship, for no other institution provides the critical care, comfort and calm needed for these times. Government—even in its most compassionate efforts—simply cannot provide its citizens with the myriad benefits provided by its houses of worship. While our recent travail through this pandemic has provided many lessons, chief among them is the value and importance of the nation’s religious community and its churches.
Rev. J. Francis Grimke, a leading African-American theologian of his era and pastor of the Fifteenth Street Presbyterian Church in Washington, D.C., delivered a series of reflections on the epidemic of his day, the Spanish Flu. In his sermon—the first in a month of not meeting with his congregation in-person—Rev. Grimke extolled the church. “We hadn’t thought, perhaps, very much of the privilege while it lasted,” he noted, “but the moment it was taken away, we saw at once how much it meant to us.”
That much is clear today, as well. How much unrest and discomfort around us today has been left unattended because the nation’s churches are unable to meet in-person? We ache as a nation today, at least in part because our religious leaders have been kept from their flock. Our citizens, kept from the assistance of bearing one another’s burdens directly as religious communities, have suffered greatly.
If our elected officials have made any mistake, it is treating our houses of worship as some sort of social club of minimal value compared to laundromats, liquor stores and banks—rather than the dynamic, essential service that sustains the literal heart and soul of a nation.
Rev. Grimke’s words ring true today, over 100 years after he spoke them from his pulpit: “There is no single influence in a community that counts for more than the Christian church.” We need our houses of worship.
We have all missed aspects of our lives closed off by the response to COVID-19. We have accepted alterations to how we shop or go to school, and few of us have been to a movie theater or sporting event in three months. Though these institutions influence and support a community, none offer the compassionate and critical influence of a local body of believers responding in obedience to their Creator by caring for one another and the world around them.
The time has come to reopen religious gatherings in our nation, safely and with full respect for generally applicable health guidelines. Open our churches—now.
R. Albert Mohler Jr. is a theologian and president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville.
This article was originally published in Newsweek on June 7th