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Church Closings Due To Epidemic Become The New Religious Freedom Frontier


Many American churches are closed in response to the coronavirus. Now some church leaders are arguing that bans on public gatherings for worship constitute a violation of religious freedom. As NPR's Tom Gjelten reports, this is the latest turn in a religious liberty debate.

TOM GJELTEN, BYLINE: Under current public health guidelines, people are advised not to gather in public unless it's for an essential purpose. Many state and local governments interpret that idea to mean houses of worship should be closed. But some church leaders aren't happy about that. Here, for example, was Pastor Steve Riggle of Grace Woodlands Church in Houston, Texas, preaching yesterday in the parking lot because his sanctuary was closed.

STEVE RIGGLE: Reopening of Texas basically has to do with sending people who have mental health, emotional health issues to the state parks and walk around, but not open the churches, where people can go to find the kind of help they really need.

GJELTEN: In a few cases around the country, church leaders have been so angry at being closed that they've sued local and state authorities, saying their constitutional right to religious freedom has been infringed, given that other businesses are still allowed to operate.

Ryan Tucker is an attorney with the Alliance Defending Freedom, a conservative advocacy group.

RYAN TUCKER: The church is being treated not on a even ground as a retail establishment or an office building where you can have scores of people maybe having even a meeting.

GJELTEN: Tucker's group is representing two churches in Kansas that sued the state's governor, Laura Kelly, over her stay-at-home executive order barring religious gatherings of more than 10 people. Their suit alleges that by allowing some establishments to operate but not churches, the governor is violating the First Amendment right to exercise religion freely.

TUCKER: Because you can do it in one situation but not in the church situation, that is a constitutional violation.

GJELTEN: Governor Kelly, in rejecting the church's argument, pointed out that several coronavirus outbreaks have been traced to a religious gathering.


LAURA KELLY: That executive order had absolutely nothing to do with religious freedom. It had everything to do with protecting the health and safety of Kansans.

GJELTEN: In fact, some other establishments in Kansas are treated the same as churches. Restaurants are not allowed to offer sit-down service, only takeout or delivery. Churches can offer worship, but only online. Moreover, people gathered in church may engage in behavior, including singing, that is especially conducive to the spread of the virus.

On Saturday, however, a federal district judge in Kansas issued a temporary restraining order overruling the governor's order, thus allowing churches to open. The Kansas situation so far is an anomaly. In more than a half dozen other states, courts have rejected arguments that closing churches violates the principle of religious freedom.

Rachel Laser, president of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, points out that allowing churches to operate could endanger people in the surrounding community.

RACHEL LASER: The government can't sanction putting people's lives at risk in the name of religious freedom. That's just not religious freedom. It's religious privilege, and it's the government saying that some of us have to pay the ultimate price to support other people's religious beliefs.

GJELTEN: In response to Saturday's ruling, Kansas Governor Kelly issued a statement saying there is still a long ways to go in this case. Another hearing is set for later this week.

Tom Gjelten, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tom Gjelten reports on religion, faith, and belief for NPR News, a beat that encompasses such areas as the changing religious landscape in America, the formation of personal identity, the role of religion in politics, and conflict arising from religious differences. His reporting draws on his many years covering national and international news from posts in Washington and around the world.