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Yes, the government can force churches to close. Here’s why

In the U.S., religious groups enjoy robust legal protections. Does that change during a public health crisis?

A man prays in the empty world famous Cologne Cathedral in Cologne, Germany, on Sunday, March 15, 2020. The church canceled all worship services and is open only for single prayers and closed for visitors due to the coronavirus outbreak. The vast majority of people recover from the new coronavirus. According to the World Health Organization, most people recover in about two to six weeks, depending on the severity of the illness.
Martin Meissner, Associated Press

SALT LAKE CITY — Faced with new restrictions on in-person gatherings, most houses of worship in the U.S. have temporarily closed their doors.

But some churches, synagogues and mosques have rebelled against requested — or, in some cases, required — changes, and sometimes faced police raids as a result.

Amid a public health crisis like COVID-19, can the government really force a house of worship to close?

Few worshippers pray at the Rosebank Catholic Church In Johannesburg, South Africa, Thursday, March 19, 2020. South Africa imposed restrictions and banned gatherings of 100 and more in a bid to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. For some people, the COVID-19 coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, but for some it causes severe illness.
Denis Farrell, Associated Press

Legal experts said the answer is almost certainly yes, as long as regulations are reasonable and applied equally across all religious groups and other types of organizations.

Policies don’t violate religious freedom laws if they’re created in order to save people’s lives, said Michael Moreland, director of the Ellen H. McCullen Center for Law, Religion and Public Policy at Villanova University.

“So long as those restrictions are neutral and applicable to everybody, religious institutions have to abide by them,” he said.

However, it’s still wise for government officials to recognize the unique nature of religious institutions’ work and try to be sensitive to their concerns, said Rabbi Jack Moline, the president of Interfaith Alliance.

It can be hard for houses of worship to alter their rituals, but nearly all will be willing to once they understand why it matters.

“These are measures to save lives, which I believe ... every faith community no matter their perspective” should support, Rabbi Moline said.

Neutrality and reasonableness

At both the state and federal level in the U.S., religious groups enjoy pretty robust protections. People of faith have the right to worship as they see fit with limited government interference and the ability to challenge troubling policies in court.

During an emergency like the coronavirus crisis, these overarching protections for religion don’t change. However, state officials can impose temporary regulations like bans on group gatherings that might, in other circumstances, lead to lawsuits.

“States have ... the power to enact regulations that are necessary for public safety,” Moreland said.

They actually have this power all the time, but it rarely leads to obtrusive requirements. For example, states are allowed to assign occupancy limits to church buildings for fire safety, just like they do for movie theaters or diners.

Houses of worship may not be guaranteed special treatment during a public health crisis, but they are guaranteed fair treatment. The government can’t force one faith group to follow stricter regulations than others, or crack down harder on churches than secular organizations within the community.

“If some state makes exceptions for some well-connected secular group that wants to meet, that should render the ban on religious meetings unconstitutional. Exceptions for essential services are one thing; exceptions for politics are quite another,” said Douglas Laycock, a distinguished professor of law at the University of Virginia.

Additionally, new policies need to be logical, Moreland said. Government officials should be able to point to the health recommendations that fueled their decision.

“In the law, there’s a tailoring requirement. You have to be pursuing an important government interest and pursuing it in a way that is tailored to achieve that interest,” he said.

Footage of police officers escorting worshipers out of a house of worship might be shocking, but it doesn’t represent a departure from existing religious freedom law, Rabbi Moline said. Saving people’s lives has always trumped protections for churches.

“If churches are doing things that are endangering lives, that’s when the laws about government interactions with religion allow interference,” he said.

Clarity and compassion

Although government officials have the right to order houses of worship to temporarily close their doors, they should be careful how they wield this power, Rabbi Moline said.

Regulations are easier to accept when religious groups understand why they matter for their congregations, as well as the surrounding community.

“For any message to be effective, it has to resonate in the context of the listener,” Rabbi Moline said.

Expectations also need to be clearly spelled out. Many of the altercations between police officers and faith communities over the past week were caused by confusion rather than intentional rebellion, said Jake Turx, senior White House correspondent for Ami Magazine, an international publication focused on the Jewish community.

“There was uncertainty about how to move forward,” he said.

Amid uncertainty, people cling to cherished routines. And for religious communities, those routines require leaving the house.

Many Catholics go to Mass every weekend. Thousands of members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints attend a general conference in Salt Lake City each spring. Some adult Jews have taken part in daily prayer services since they were teenagers.

People of faith won’t abandon their typical practices unless it’s absolutely clear they have to, Turx said.

“If you have a streak (of attending Jewish prayers) that goes back to when you were 13, it’s a very difficult situation,” he said.

Rather than simply force a synagogue or church to lock its doors and then move on to the next problem, government officials can help the congregation transition to its new normal.

Turx offered examples of this approach, noting that police officers in some areas monitored Jews’ final visit to their synagogue to pick up prayer shawls and other effects, ensuring people stayed a safe distance apart from one another.

“You could call it tough love, but it wasn’t even tough,” Turx said.

Rabbi Moline agreed that compassion is important, but said it’s OK for government leaders to make it clear that new regulations on meeting size are nonnegotiable.

“If anything mitigates the message that public worship needs to be suspended right now, there’s nothing to be gained by that sensitivity,” he said.

Religious freedom moving forward

Another message that can’t get lost in the current crisis is that religious freedom is a human right, said Nadine Maenza, vice chairwoman of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom. It should be clear that new regulations are temporary and that no religious group is being singled out for mistreatment.

“People globally have a right to the freedom of religion or belief. That can’t be derogated during public emergencies or even war,” she said.

In some countries, the coronavirus pandemic has become an excuse to further abuse vulnerable minority groups.

For example, the commission believes China is forcing Muslim citizens to fill in for sick factory workers. In South Korea, members of an unpopular Christian church have faced harassment after thousands of COVID-19 cases were traced to one of its worship services.

“That kind of scapegoating should be discouraged,” Maenza said.

Regardless of a country’s governing style or religious makeup, new regulations should be guided by public health guidelines and applied equally to all faith communities.

And after the threat of infection has passed, religious groups should once again be free to meet as they wish, legal experts said.

“There has to be an expectation that changes will not last forever,” Moreland said.