The U.S. Constitution sets forth fundamental laws and guarantees certain basic rights for citizens. The First Amendment establishes freedom of religion, which is under scrutiny within the context of COVID-19.
The devastating, large-scale spread of COVID-19 has resulted in soaring numbers of illnesses and deaths, and governors across the country have sought to mitigate the impact. Large gatherings have been restricted, including religious assemblies. This effort has sparked tension concerning religious freedom. Some people of faith have alleged that underneath the claims of protecting public health is a secularist agenda to chip away at religious freedom.
On May 22, President Donald Trump publicly criticized state governors for maintaining restrictions on worship gatherings. As with past presidents, both Republican and Democratic, President Trump must be applauded for affirming the essentiality of faith, prayer and corporate worship. Wisdom, love and compassion are also essential elements of faith. For such a perplexing time as this, faith communities must assist, comfort and provide manifold measures of support for human health and life. Faith practice has not been burdened or prohibited in any way. Forward-thinking congregations have maintained effective presence and are assisting communities’ needs and connecting through virtual worship.
In the book, Is Christianity the White Man’s Religion?, one of us, Antipas, argues that religious communities must not miss opportunities to bear witness with concern about the health and welfare of all of God’s children. In scripture, Jesus emphasizes the need to tend to the least of these (ref. Matthew 25:31-46). This season is important for local churches to define their mission to emphasize faith attributes beyond singing and fellowshipping in large physical groups. We are inspired to bear public witness of God’s love beyond the walls.
While government authorities must carefully refrain from targeting and infringing upon the most essential expressions of faith in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, it is prudent to avoid large physical gatherings. This is particularly important for those who engage in vibrant worship. It is possible that infected, asymptomatic worshippers will contribute to an unavoidable viral hotbed and heighten the risk for others to contract the virus. This can be deadly, particularly for worshippers with preconditions or weak immune systems.
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The president should take notice of the evident unbridled exercise of faith among religious communities, noting that traditional convening for worship is not imperative to faith vitality. Congregations are inspired and challenged amid these unprecedented times. They are inspired that their sacred and social worth are not mutually exclusive. In the first century, Christianity spread the most during troubling times and when worship was restricted to homes. Paul used technology of his time to communicate the gospel to believers gathered in their homes. He wrote the Book of Romans to be circulated and read aloud throughout a selection of home sanctuaries.
Comparatively, during the current pandemic, virtual technology has made it convenient for every home to become a sanctuary. The Potter’s House of Dallas is one of many examples of congregations that has experienced this firsthand. Bishop TD Jakes shares the word of God in thousands of home sanctuaries. The associate pastors host Bible training, Discipleship gatherings, youth meetings and children sermons virtually. Additionally, Jakes Divinity School is organizing online training programs to prepare students from around the world for necessary innovative ministry in the church and community. The Potter’s House also attends to practical needs through congregational care, grief support, and tending to the elderly.
Congregations of all faiths and/or religions are the source of strength and comfort. Ministers, rabbis, imams and chaplains have been busy over the past three months, burying many of the 100,000 dead related to the pandemic and others who have died by other causes, while also comforting their grieving families.
Is religious freedom really at stake? Perhaps, action taken to protect public health is not at all in tension with freedom of religion or in conflict with the mission of faith practice. Faith communities have emerged for greater witness in the public square and remain present and effective, serving those who are most vulnerable while governed by voices of reason, love and compassion to promote healing, protection and preservation.
Norman A. Harris, a minister, community activist and lawyer who lives in Tampa, is principal owner of Champions for Justice Law, LLC. Antipas L. Harris is the president-dean of Jakes Divinity School and associate pastor at The Potter’s House of Dallas.