Churches across the country continue to hold worship services, crowding people inside buildings despite social distancing guidelines put into place to slow the spread of the coronavirus pandemic. Whether or not state or local governments can force those places to close is a tricky Constitutional issue that has yet to be decided in court, ABC News reports.
Some churches that are continuing to hold worship services are doing so in states in which there are no social distancing rules in place at all. Others hold services in states with government-mandated social distancing rules in place, but with exceptions for religious gatherings. Still others are holding worship services in spite of such mandates, where there are no exceptions for religious gatherings, with the church’s leaders effectively openly disobeying the law.
As previously reported by The Inquisitr, more than one Christian church leader has found themselves on the wrong side of the law for holding church services despite social distancing orders. In Tampa, for example, the pastor of megachurch The River Church, Rodney Howard-Browne, was arrested for holding worship services in violation of local rules.
Similarly, in Louisiana, pastor Tony Spell of Life Tabernacle Church, was arrested for the same reason, only in defiance of a state law, not a local one.
Both men have indicated that their allegiances to God and the Constitution are greater than their allegiance to local law.
However, the matter of whether or not the Constitution allows governments to close places of worship during a time of national emergency, such as a pandemic, is far from settled.
Josh Blackman, a professor of constitutional law, notes that courts have held that governments can’t place an “undue burden” on the practice of religion. Of course, what that means is open to interpretation. And in the absence of precedent, there’s little in the way of guidance.
“There’s not much precedent to go on here,” Blackman said.
Some churches have taken to broadcasting their services over the internet or airwaves. But for some religious leaders, Christian or otherwise, that simply won’t do.
Spell, for example, has said that his religion requires hands-on worship in the most literal sense, such as in baptizing or the laying of hands in prayer — things that can’t be accomplished over the internet. Elsewhere, some sects of Judaism require at least 10 people be present in order to count as a religious assembly.
“These edicts, without question, substantially burden religion,” Blackman said, adding that the question is open as to whether or not the government has a compelling enough reason to enact such burdens.
As far as Blackman sees it, the answer to the question of whether or not there’s any other way for the government to enforce social distancing besides shutting down religious gatherings is “probably no.”