As coronavirus spread across the nation and gatherings were prohibited, one of the most complicated decisions has been which establishments should reopen first. In Pennsylvania and New Jersey, houses of worship were not specifically prohibited from being open for worship, but statewide limitations on gatherings precluded them from offering normal services, causing angst for the faithful who wanted to connect with their religious communities. Last week, President Trump vowed to override any governor who refuses to allow places of worship to open their doors, an announcement met with joy in eager faith communities as well as worries about the risk of spreading coronavirus among congregations.

As our region prepares for reopening, we turned to a religious scholar and a Lutheran pastor to debate: Is now the time for churches to reopen after the coronavirus shutdown?

Yes: Houses of worship play an essential role in hope and healing

COVID-19 is taking a toll on Americans’ minds, hearts, and souls. Houses of worship can play an essential role in treating these problems.

The Census Bureau reports that one-third of Americans now show signs of clinical anxiety or depression. The problem is especially pronounced among women, the poor, and young adults, even though they are less likely to become seriously ill from the virus.

Members of the Solid Rock Baptist Church in Berlin, New Jersey attend service on Sunday morning, May 24, 2020. The church defied New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy's shutdown order and opened the church for in-person service.
YONG KIM / Staff Photographer
Members of the Solid Rock Baptist Church in Berlin, New Jersey attend service on Sunday morning, May 24, 2020. The church defied New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy's shutdown order and opened the church for in-person service.

COVID-19 unemployment could make this worse. Calls to suicide hotlines have spiked as the shutdown drags on. One study projects up to 75,000 deaths from drug or alcohol misuse and suicides over the next decade. With 1 in 4 Americans now facing unemployment, there is great concern about rising “deaths of despair.”

Research reveals a strong linkage between faith and mental health. Studying post-traumatic stress disorder among veterans, Harold Koenig of Duke University Medical Center found that spiritual involvement gave veterans emotional stability that increased their resiliency to trauma.

Professors Byron Johnson and Christos Makridis discovered a causal relationship between religious affiliation and subjective well-being. They attributed it, in part, to the increased social capital that members of a religious community enjoy.

These studies provide a strong public-health rationale for President Trump’s May 22 decision to identify “houses of worship … as essential places that provide essential services.” His announcement was accompanied by guidance on social distancing from the Centers for Disease Control and followed by a warning from the Justice Department that: "Even in times of emergency, when reasonable and temporary restrictions are placed on rights, the First Amendment and federal statutory law prohibit discrimination against religious institutions and religious believers.”

“The stricter treatment of houses of worship raises not only the legal matter of unequal treatment, but also questions about public health.”

Emilie Kao

Some governors like California’s Gavin Newsom opened restaurants and bars while keeping houses of worship closed, despite polling that shows most Americans would prefer houses of worship open first. Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz allowed malls and casinos to reopen at 50% capacity, but limited gatherings in houses of worship to 10 people … until Catholic and Lutheran leaders protested.

Will people behave responsibly in a bar or casino, but irresponsibly in a synagogue or mosque? The stricter treatment of houses of worship raises not only the legal matter of unequal treatment, but also questions about public health.

Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker decreed that liquor stores and cannabis dispensaries could open, but houses of worship could not. Do alcohol and marijuana provide answers for Americans who are out of work and struggling with social isolation?

Shopping malls and bars may meet physical and social needs, but they are inadequate for our mental, emotional, and spiritual needs. Many Americans find encouragement through their faith. Even government officials who are not religious would be wise to recognize the power of faith to encourage the struggling.

The Founders protected religious freedom not just so that we could worship as individuals, but so that we could practice our faith in community with others. As COVID-19 takes a devastating toll on both bodies and souls, houses of worship should be permitted to play their essential role in hope and healing.

Emilie Kao is Director of the DeVos Center on Religion and Civil Society at the Heritage Foundation.

No: Churches should choose to open last in service to the safety of all

I stood at the corner beside a young woman holding the hand of a toddler. The light for us was red, but looking up and down the street, I saw there was no approaching traffic, so I prepared to cross, without waiting for the green.

Something made me look down at the child, causing me to stop in my tracks. Here was someone just beginning to learn that red means “stop” and green means “go." Although I was able to cross, how would my ignoring the traffic light serve the needs of my neighbor, who in that moment happened to be this little girl and her adult partner, who more than likely was trying to teach her the rules of the road to keep her alive?

The sign in front of Ocean City’s Holy Trinity Episcopal Church on May 15, 2020.
ELIZABETH ROBERTSON / Staff Photographer
The sign in front of Ocean City’s Holy Trinity Episcopal Church on May 15, 2020.

How do I serve my neighbor?—even though in a hurry, I found myself planted in solidarity with the two of them, waiting until the light turned to green, indicating we could all go.

It occurred to me when the recommendations first started coming out about wearing masks during the COVID-19 pandemic, that this small act represented another example of serving my neighbor. Over and over, we heard from medical and scientific experts: do not wear the mask for yourself, but for others. Wash your hands, distance yourselves, avoid assembling, all in order to safeguard your vulnerable neighbor—the beauty in this being that if everyone were to do this, we would all be served.

“I believe that if Christians were to follow Jesus’ command to love and serve one another as he loves and serves us, then his church would be among the last ones to physically gather during this pandemic.”

Kari Hart

I believe that if Christians were to follow Jesus’ command to love and serve one another as he loves and serves us, then his church would be among the last ones to physically gather during this pandemic. The very last ones.

With our constitutional right, we could claim our ability to be among the first. We could also claim our need: I know I feel almost desperate to be with my congregation. Thinking back to that street corner, we could believe, as I did—I need to, I am able to, so what is stopping me?

And then I think of that child, and I know it is the who that will propel me toward the needs of my vulnerable neighbor, and away from my own. Even my spiritual own.

Think about this: How would it look if the church refused to gather physically, if by doing so there was even the slightest possibility of harm to our neighbor—whoever or wherever that neighbor might be?

If the church said: We surrender our right, we relegate our need in consideration of that minuscule chance of one person who might become infected as a result. If we said, yes we can, but no, thank you, we won’t.

It would look like the most counter-productive strategy for survival the church could come up with. Like we were signing our own death certificate.

And yet, we didn’t come up with it — God did. Two thousand years ago, Christians believe this same strategy got nailed to a cross. The death certificate was signed, sealed and delivered. And just look who got served as a result—every single, living one of us.

Rev. Kari Hart is pastor at the Lutheran Church of the Holy Communion.

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