Both the scope and limits of religious freedom are hot topics for Catholics, and properly so in a world contending with the COVID-19 pandemic, in which the Holy Father and most of our bishops are accepting severe limits imposed by governments.
In my view, the current public-health crisis justifies curtailing our religious freedom for a time. But we must remain vigilant and hold our officials accountable. The U.S. Constitution carries a presumption in favor of religious freedom, and governments must bear the burden of overcoming that presumption even, perhaps especially, during periods of crisis. That’s not only a legal analysis. That’s just plain common sense.
COVID-19 has exacted devastating human, social and economic costs in the United States and around the world. Cases have been reported in 55 U.S. jurisdictions, including all 50 states. The virus’ high degree of transmissibility and its mode of transmission (mainly by contact with an infected person’s respiratory droplets) justify extreme measures — temporarily.
We still have much to learn about the virus, but what we do know makes mandatory social distancing a reasonable step to take. The goal is to reduce the number of infections in a short timeframe, thereby reducing the likelihood that hospitals and entire communities could be overwhelmed with critically ill and dying people. This happened in Italy and China and is likely to happen elsewhere around the world.
At the Religious Freedom Institute where I work, we are very concerned that religious minorities are being placed at the end of the line for the care that is available. That tragedy is playing out now in China and is likely occurring throughout Asia, the Middle East and Africa.
In the United States, the Catholic understanding of the common good requires us to accept and to participate in our current policies, much as Catholics have fought with distinction in our nation’s wars. But even legitimate public-health concerns do not exist in a vacuum. Effectively shutting down American society has its own devastating effects on the spiritual, social and economic common good.
Religious gatherings for Passover, Holy Week and Easter, and Ramadan are all disrupted by the stay-at-home orders and bans on gatherings of 10 or more people. To say the very least, these measures impose an immense burden on religious communities and on the precious right of religious freedom. While we must view them now as legitimate, we must also constantly review them and demand that they end as soon as possible. We must not permit any governor, legislature or judge to use the crisis as a pretext to undermine religious liberty.
Details matter. For example, the line drawn between essential and nonessential businesses and services in some government decrees is highly suspect. In Virginia, Gov. Ralph Northam officially declared that religious services are not essential but liquor stores and abortions are. Really? Such determinations demand immediate scrutiny, explanation and close monitoring as they are enforced.
Fortunately, it appears that religious ministries serving the needy are being included by some governors as essential services. These ministries are critical to protecting the most vulnerable among us, true at all times and especially during this terrible pandemic. But, precisely because religious people in these ministries are motivated by their religious convictions, their spiritual needs cannot be set aside.
For Catholics, Holy Mass, receiving the Eucharist and access to confession are essential to our happiness in this life and the next. They are also central to our love for the poor and the needy (no matter their religion). We must not permit our sacraments to devolve into nice-to-have gatherings, dispensable at the whim of governments. That is not the American way of doing things. It cannot be the Catholic way either.
In the end, it is incumbent upon governments to continue to justify bans on religious services and to rescind them the moment the conditions underlying these extraordinary measures subside. We cannot afford to drop our guard. Our freedoms, and our faith, depend on it.
Thomas Farr is president of the Religious Freedom Institute,
a nonprofit that defends religious freedom for everyone, everywhere.