Since March, churches all over America have suspended in person worship services to comply with social distancing guidelines meant to prevent the spread of COVID-19. For nearly three months, churches have adapted to alternatives including online services and drive-in services. Surprisingly, a few state and local governments punished those participating in drive-in services by handing out tickets. Despite the challenges, the vast majority of worshippers have abided by social distancing restrictions, longing for the days when they can worship together again.
The same cannot be said of many of the protestors in recent days. After the unjust death of George Floyd in Minnesota, many protestors flooded the streets demanding justice. However, these large gatherings of protestors were in direct violation of CDC guidelines. At the height of the protests, Minnesota’s Department of Health was still officially encouraging its citizens to go out only to “buy food, medicine, and other needed items.”
Since the mass protests, there has been a spike in new coronavirus cases in Minnesota. Violence has greatly increased. A number of businesses in Minnesota have been destroyed and one of their police stations was torched. Around the country, several policemen—both black and white— were assaulted and some even murdered while attempting to maintain order. Despite the public health risks of large protests, government officials throughout the country have allowed the protests to continue (and in some cases participated themselves). And while it is important to underscore the justifiable outrage over George Floyd’s death, the acquiescence of authorities to these protests while churches remain shuttered raises the question of a double standard.
In short, if governors allow thousands of protestors to march in cities around the country, when can churches have in-person services? The CDC has cleared churches to hold services in their buildings. The issue seems to be with some state governments who are explicitly discriminating against churches. One example is in Nevada where Governor Sisolak is restricting church gatherings to 50 or fewer people while permitting casinos and restaurants to open at 50 percent capacity; in some of the larger casinos this means allowing hundreds of people to gather at one time. According to these government mandates, church gatherings must abide by restrictions while secular businesses can serve many guests. Clearly, these decisions violate the religious freedom of worshippers.
Freedom of speech is a cherished principle that must include even unpopular views and opinions. If protestors are permitted to chant, “I can’t breathe,” churchgoers should be allowed to sing, “Amazing Grace.” Protestors should be free to peaceably exercise their First Amendment rights of free speech and assembly and churchgoers should be treated no differently.
Any worshipper will readily admit that church in recent weeks has felt a little different. Church members do not wish to break the law or endanger anyone. They simply wish to worship together. Some outside the church may marvel or be confused about why Christians are so adamant about meeting for corporate worship. The reason is that for followers of Christ, gathering for worship is not a preference, but a command that Christians must obey. The writer of Hebrews says, “And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing.” Though the church is commanded to gather together, government restrictions in many places continue to prevent this from happening. So long as government restrictions are applied equally to all sectors of society, these orders should be followed. After all, Romans 13 teaches that government has been ordained by God. However, it is clear now that the government’s orders are not being applied equally as protestors have been permitted to voice their grievances and stage large gatherings without CDC health guidelines being enforced. Let us meet in the middle: allow protesters to voice their opinion while at the same time permitting church goers to worship together in person.
Finally, churches who dare to open are bending over backwards to abide by and even exceed government guidelines. Pastors are commissioned by God to care for those in their church. State governors should be assured that pastors will take care of their members just as well as a restaurant owner will take care of their guests. To help pastors care for their churches, FRC released a resource titled “Guidelines for Reopening Your Church.” If we are going to protect the right to freedom of speech for protestors, let us safeguard the freedom of religion for those who want to gather for public worship. Only when both free speech and freedom of religion are protected for all will we have a functioning and whole society.
Laura Lee Caum is a Communications intern at Family Research Council.