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COVID-19 and the future of religious freedom

The COVID-19 pandemic may have added fuel to current battles over the true meaning of religious freedom, according to political scientist Daniel Bennett

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A person films Pastor Nicolas Sanchez, center left, celebrating Easter Vigil Mass at his church decorated with candles and pictures sent by his parishioners attached to their pews at St. Patrick Church in North Hollywood, Calif., on April 11, 2020. The head of the federal Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division told Gov. Gavin Newsom Tuesday, May 19, 2020, that his plan to reopen California discriminates against churches.

Damian Dovarganes, Associated Press

This article was first published in the State of Faith newsletter. Sign up to receive the newsletter in your inbox each Monday night.

Four years ago, I read a book that altered the course of my career. Up to that point, I’d reported regularly on faith-related legal disputes, but I hadn’t thought much about the attorneys and law firms involved. I had covered the output of the Christian conservative legal movement but missed the fact that the movement existed.

Defending Faith,” which was published in July 2017, changed all that. Suddenly, I was aware of how seemingly unrelated cases on abortion rights, LGBTQ anti-discrimination law and religious persecution were linked together. I saw that the attorneys I spoke with about concepts like the separation of church and state felt personally called to protect their fellow Christians and secure the future of religious freedom.

I published a story titled “Serving God by suing others,” which outlined what I’d learned. That article, and the book that inspired it, continues to guide the way I write about religious liberty today.

I’ve thought about “Defending Faith” especially often in the past year, as I researched and wrote about the religious freedom ramifications of the COVID-19 pandemic. Its author, Daniel Bennett, an associate professor of political science at John Brown University in Siloam Springs, Arkansas, was kind enough to chat with me and answer a few of the questions I keep returning to.

It’s been four years now since “Defending Faith” was published. How has the Christian conservative legal movement evolved in that time frame?

The Trump era was kind to the Christian legal movement. Several veterans of related organizations served in positions of influence in the Trump administration, including in the Department of Justice and the Department of Health and Human Services. Since 2017, the movement has grown in influence, resources and legal successes. While the Biden administration will not be as friendly, the composition of the courts (including the Supreme Court), is very favorable to the movement’s goals.

Do you think the COVID-19 pandemic helped or hurt these law firms?

There have obviously been quite a few controversies involving churches challenging restrictions on gatherings, and while some cases have had more merit than others, Christian conservative legal organizations have been eager to capitalize on all of them. The University of Cincinnati’s Andy Lewis and I have studied this, and we’ve found that these efforts may have the effect of polarizing religious freedom as a political and cultural issue, which poses real problems for the future of a holistic and healthy conception of religious liberty. So while the pandemic has tended to aid and strengthen some of these firms in their public work, there could be consequences ahead.

What else have we learned about religious freedom law during this health crisis?

I think the pandemic has taught us that, even though religious liberty is an essential freedom, it is not inviolable. Where states have crafted reasonable restrictions treating church gatherings like comparable nonchurch gatherings, there haven’t been many successful legal challenges. It’s where governments have inexplicably treated churches different from other sorts of mass gathering spaces that you see the courts siding with Christian legal groups and their clients.

I think the pandemic has also reinforced the idea that religious freedom is a major cultural flashpoint. It’s exposed (or maybe emphasized) a lot of partisan and religious divisions on religious freedom claims. It’s now clear, for example, that if you’re a Democrat who doesn’t go to church, you’re going to have very different views about government restrictions on religious gatherings than a Republican who attends church weekly.

Let’s end on a lighter note. If you had to recommend a book, TV show, podcast or movie to someone who likes religion news, what would you recommend?

I’m a big fan of “The Good Place.” It tackles a lot of fundamental philosophical questions in clever and (really) funny ways. And one of my favorite podcasts is “Young Adult Movie Ministry,” which is kind of like a film criticism podcast through a (somewhat jaded) Christians lens. Recent episodes have covered serious films like “Silence” and “First Reformed,” but the show’s also tackled the “God’s Not Dead” franchise and stuff from Kirk Cameron. I learn a lot, but I laugh a lot, too.

Fresh off the press

As part of my ongoing coverage of LGBTQ rights and religious freedom, I wrote an article last week about which Americans are most likely to oppose adding sexual orientation and gender identity-based protections to federal civil rights law.


People attend the Utah Faith Fair and Rally for Love, Equality, Family, and Acceptance outside of the state Capitol in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Nov. 21, 2015.

Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

Term of the week: Mikdash me’at

Mikdash me’at is a Hebrew phrase meaning “small sanctuary,” which is sometimes used to refer to a home. I learned this fact in a story my colleague Mya Jaradat wrote for Passover about the role of the home in Jewish life. Rabbis explained to her that, for Jews, the home is treated like a sanctuary since it’s the site of so many important rituals, including the Passover Seder.

What I’m reading ...

Across the country, shrinking congregations are struggling to decide what to do with church buildings that seem too big and too expensive to keep. In New York City, religious leaders, land use experts and city planners have joined forces to help houses of worship in their area with that decision. They wrote a book outlining how to avoid selling a church building by doing things like renting it out to other organizations and selling the air rights above it, according to The City.

On a related noted, for the first time in 80 years, a Gallup survey on church membership has found that fewer than half of Americans belong to a house of worship. For much of the 20th century, around three-quarters of U.S. adults described themselves as a member of a church, synagogue or mosque.

Odds and ends

Ryan Burge, who is both a pastor and a political scientist, recently published a new book on the rise of religiously unaffiliated Americans, called “The Nones: Where They Came From, Who They Are and Where They Are Going.” I read the whole thing in one morning and felt it was a thoughtful reflection on the state of American religion. The Deseret News recently published an excerpt from the book.