Religious Overreaches Could Backfire by Charles Franklin

New York Governor Cuomo who imposed restrictions on religious gatherings. Photo by Diana Robinson via Wikimedia Commons
New York Governor Cuomo who imposed restrictions on religious gatherings. Photo by Diana Robinson via Wikimedia Commons
It’s an old story: A business like Enron or Pfizer goes flat out for profit, ethics and the law be damned and boom! Enron is disemboweled for conspiracy and fraud and Pfizer was fined $2.3 billion in the largest health-care fraud settlement case in history. They brought it on themselves and paid the price. And then, other companies which did nothing wrong begin to feel the heavy hand of more government controls, more bureaucratic interference, and even a shift in the society in which capitalism is reviled and socialism praised because of the illegal, immoral or unethical actions of a few.

Religions in a time of COVID tread the same dangerous path. The Supreme Court struck down New York State’s COVID restrictions on houses of worship. The good news is that the Bill of Rights has triumphed, and that’s important — no one should be permitted to take away those rights. But the bad news? Good sense has evidently been kicked to the curb, which could backfire in time.

A California megachurch pastor, for example, repeated Justice Gorsuch’s assertion that: “There is no world in which the Constitution tolerates a color-coded executive edict that opens liquor stores … and bike shops but shutters churches.” The pastor said his congregation had a biblical mandate and First Amendment rights to conduct church services despite the state’s restrictions. Yes he does, but from what we know now, masks and social distancing is the most effective way to prevent the spread of COVID.

A Sacramento Bee article said the pastor had a large congregation packed closely together and if so, by exercising his rights, he could put members of his congregation at risk, and through them, the public at large. It may not be illegal, but it certainly isn’t ethical, and if an outbreak of COVID results from his gathering of congregants packed into the pews, expect the public and their representatives to step in and impose more restrictions on religions, even those who are using masks, keeping social distancing, meeting online or in parking lots and doing everything they can to worship safely. And “organized religion” takes another self-inflicted hit.

Rabbi Yosi Levine of Manhattan has a different approach. “That a given activity may be legal does not necessarily mean it is advisable or even permitted,” he said in the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. “Our synagogue closed before being mandated to by the government. We waited to reopen until well after the state proclaimed reopening permissible. And while the government’s occupancy limits would have allowed us to seat 100 or more people in our sanctuary, our internal guidelines restricted capacity to a fraction of that number … Our goal is to protect the health and well-being of every person who passes through our doors and, in turn, the health and well-being of every member of our broader community.” Rabbi Levine’s synagogue and many other houses of worship have retained their rights to assemble and worship, but because of their consideration for others, chose not to exercise it.