Religious liberty during COVID-19: Get a haircut, but stay away from church

Tony Perkins is President of Family Research Council. This article appeared in the Washington Times on May 21, 2020.

How is a church different than a marijuana dispensary?

In Oregon, one can open (the hallucinogenic drug store) and one (the church) can’t. 

Oregon Gov. Kate Brown is willing to allow a variety of stores to open, from bars to gyms, but wants to keep churches closed because of concerns with “social distancing.” And that massive inconsistency is why 10 Oregon churches are suing the state because the governor’s executive order undermines their religious liberty. An Oregon county judge struck down the governor’s order on Monday and the Oregon Supreme Court responded by temporarily reinstating the order while it considers the case. 

Supposedly, this is all because of fear of large gatherings. Yet, churchgoers can still meet without jeopardizing one another’s health. From restrictions on the number of people who can assemble in one place to holding several smaller services instead of a single large one, accommodations are not that hard to make.

Let me be clear: No one questions the importance of keeping our country healthy and safe, of protecting everyone from small children to our senior citizens. In Senate testimony last week, Dr. Anthony Fauci said that we have to be very careful about prematurely opening up the many places people come together. We all agree with that. 

But as Sen. Tim Scott, South Carolina Republican, discussed last week, the government seems to keep moving the goalposts. As he put it, we’ve been told we need to flatten the COVID-19 curve, but now that we’ve done this, we’re told we still can’t get the economy open. Major surgeries have been postponed in his homestate, Mr. Scott says, placing thousands of South Carolinians at serious risk, even though only about 350 people have died. Every death is one too many, said the senator, but extreme shutdown measures are placing far more lives at risk.

We’ve been told we will run out of ventilators, but New York is the only state where that came close to happening. We sent a naval medical ship to New York City and it was barely used. 

We are at a point where we have become prey to sensational media that holds up Dr. Fauci as the final authority on what opens and when. He is one of the world’s foremost experts on infectious diseases. But he’s also only one of many qualified experts addressing COVID-19 and many of them are now saying that for all but a tiny percentage of Americans, almost entirely composed of people over 60 with respiratory problems, we can begin to move forward and get the country back to work.

Unfortunately, it’s always been the case that exaggerated headlines sell the news. In this case, though, the constant and often panicked media reporting on COVID-19 is being used by some government officials to exercise power never envisioned by either our nation’s Founders or, for that matter, simple common sense.

In Maine, for example, a state with about 1.3 million people, there have been about 70 deaths linked to the coronavirus. Yet, Maine Gov. Jane Mills has extended a “state of civil emergency” declaration through June 11. And although many states are beginning to ease restrictions on certain businesses (restaurants, barbershops, and even some manufacturing plants), we’ve seen all too clearly how some politicians are ready to use their power to compel certain kinds of behaviors from ordinary citizens. No one wants a “Wild West,” do-as-you-want atmosphere. But do we really need precise orders about when and where to get a haircut?

Which brings us back to the issue of religious liberty. Even Barack Obama, whose administration tried repeatedly to place restrictions on the exercise of religious freedom, admitted that “dignity and opportunity aren’t just gifts to be handed down by a generous government or by a generous employer. They are rights given by God.” And if our rights are given to us by God, government’s job must be to secure them — just as the Declaration of Independence says it is.

So, when government tries to curb the God-given right we all possess to practice our religious convictions, it needs not just a good reason but a very strong one. Sadly, many liberals find religious liberty more of a silly annoyance than a sacred right.

In America, no elected or appointed official, no judge or magistrate, is a king or a master. Yes, they have power — delegated power, reposed in them by the people. And when they misuse that power, they must be held accountable to those same people.

It comes to this: We preserve our freedom by using our freedom. I believe many government officials have overstepped their bounds. The Department of Justice and a number of federal courts agree. That’s why I believe every pastor in America should be praying intently about when to open the doors of their churches, not based merely upon what the government says, but on remembering their calling to preach the gospel. They need to do so with the best of precautions, yes. But if barbershops, big-box stores and marijuana dispensaries can be allowed to open their doors, so must our houses of worship.