by Kelle Berry, Contributing Writer • 8 min read
In this time of uncertainty and stress, perspective is important.
Historically, Americans have looked to faith as a guide and a source to inform our sense of what truly matters most, especially during times of hardship.
The COVID-19 pandemic has forced the world to reconsider what is essential, what is important and what is valued. In particular, religious communities are faced with the challenge of balancing public health and safety with their constitutional right to live out their faith.
Fortunately, as Jewish and Christian Americans celebrate the Passover and Easter seasons, respectively, we are reminded of our country’s foundational priorities. Both Easter and Passover traditionally include community celebrations and worship experiences that can help ground us with an eternal perspective, and they bring to the forefront the importance of defending religious liberty.
This Easter and Passover season, however, will likely be different for most Americans. Due to the necessity of social distancing, many will be forced to participate in these religious observances differently. Because they won’t be able to host large groups of extended family and friends at a synagogue, Jewish communities are having to adapt their Passover celebrations, including scaling down their feasts to dining tables for four, two or even one.
Perhaps in future years, elders will observe Passover by reflecting on this year as a time when they were not able to gather together to celebrate.
Thankfully, technology has helped many “gather together” with their faith communities from the safety of their homes. With the proliferation of live-streaming church services and online small-group meetings, many are able to participate in religious activities from their living rooms. It may not be ideal, but we can be grateful that we live in an era during which we can encourage one another virtually face-to-face.
Even still, the fact that Jewish communities are living out their faith in living rooms or kitchens during their most important holiday season clearly shows why we must guard religious liberty in the most sacred and protected space of all: our very own homes.
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Has your house of worship been affected by COVID-19 and recent government orders?
First Liberty has resources and critical information available to support you.
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Why We Must Protect Religious Liberty at Home
But what if we did not have the benefit of technology? Or worse, what if the government placed restrictions on religious activities in private homes? In times such as these, the importance of faith traditions and the freedom to exercise our faith at home is crucial to enduring stressful and unknown circumstances.
Many believe that Americans have nothing to be concerned about regarding their freedom in private homes, but in Airmont, NY—arguably the state hardest hit by COVID-19—Jewish Americans have been fighting for the right to privately worship in their homes for 30 years.
Worshippers gather in small numbers in homes that are within walking distance of one another because Orthodox Judaism prohibits them from driving on the Sabbath or on holidays. However, the local government continues to place draconian restrictions on the Jewish community by requiring them to wade through a sea of bureaucratic red tape to obtain various permits and approvals in order to enjoy the most basic of First Amendment freedoms.
City officials even have the authority to measure space (including bookshelves) inside their homes to determine the proper amount to be used for religious purposes.
One local Rabbi has paid over $40,000 in fees to the village trying to meet their demands—and is still being denied to this day. What’s more, local authorities even threatened him with jail for hosting a religious service in his home.
Think about the implications of these discriminatory actions, particularly in moments of limited freedom such as we are living now.
If the state is intruding and telling a minority Jewish community how much space they can use in their homes for worship…will government officials seize the current crisis as an opportunity to place limits on how much time you spend at home listening to sermons, devotionals, religious services or worship music?
That’s why First Liberty is fighting to reclaim religious freedom for Airmont’s Jewish congregations, and our legal team filed a lawsuit to remove these unconstitutional restrictions and allow residents to freely worship in their own homes.
A Time for Cooperation Between Church and State
Many of us might consider Airmont, NY an exception to the norm. Sadly, First Liberty has seen this kind of government encroachment appear in other communities across the country. And although First Liberty continues to be a first line of defense for religious freedom, it may not be long before Airmont is no longer an outlier.
In Florida, First Liberty client Donna Dunbar was told she could not conduct group Bible study in her own apartment complex. And in Virginia, First Liberty client Ken Hauge was told the same thing by his senior residential center. Thankfully, First Liberty prevailed in both cases.
Amidst the COVID-19 crisis, people of faith should comply with public health and safety guidelines and temporary restrictions on their ability to worship publicly. At the same time, it’s crucial that all Americans of every faith and every age continue to enjoy the freedom to observe their faith traditions.
This unique time is an opportunity for the cooperation of church and state. Religious leaders should seek meaningful ways for their communities to worship without unnecessary risk. And government should do everything it can to protect such religious free exercise. At the very least, that means avoiding unnecessary restrictions on religious liberty in the home. When people are quarantined to their homes, and religious services are unavailable in public places, they must be able to freely live out their faith in their own living rooms.
Religious liberty is America’s first liberty and it has always enabled Americans to find the strength to endure hard times. This crisis serves as another reminder of why the battle for religious liberty is vital yet unending, and why First Liberty is going All In to protect and reclaim your religious freedom.