Peaceful Demonstrations Take a Stand for Right to Worship

Across the country, people of faith are fighting for fairer treatment under COVID-19 limitations.

Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone leads a Eucharistic procession to ‘Free the Mass’ Sept. 20 in San Francisco.
Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone leads a Eucharistic procession to ‘Free the Mass’ Sept. 20 in San Francisco. (photo: Courtesy of the Archdiocese of San Francisco)

“We have the right to worship as we want to, and we have the right to be inside if we want to. I think we’re being discriminated against.” 

When she spoke those words, Frances Conaway was in the right place: at La Placita in Los Angeles, where the inaugural “March for Faith” would start its procession to Los Angeles City Hall, just a few blocks away. 

Conaway was one of more than 100 March for Faith participants on Oct. 10, many of them bearing March for Faith signs and American flags. As the group processed along the sidewalk to City Hall, passing motorists honked their horns and called out in support. 

“Our rights come from God, not government,” said march co-founder Susan Arnall before the start of the procession. 

“Forces within our government are attacking our God-given rights. That’s why we are marching today: to educate people.” 

Deffner-MARCHFORFAITH
The inaugural ‘March for Faith’ takes place in Los Angeles Oct. 10.(Photo: Courtesy of Vanessa Garcia)


 

Lockdown

It’s not difficult to find news about people of faith dissatisfied with the COVID-19 limitations being placed on their worship traditions. 

The Diocese of Brooklyn recently took to the courts for relief, after new public-health restrictions limited the size of gatherings in certain coronavirus “hot spots” around the state. These restrictions effectively limited churches to holding as few as 10 people for indoor Masses, under the new rules. 

The diocese sought a temporary restraining order, and on Oct. 9, the night before the March for Faith, Judge Eric Komitee ruled that “the government is afforded wide latitude in managing the spread of deadly diseases” under Supreme Court precedent and denied that the health order singled out houses of worship.

The diocese then sought a preliminary injunction — and lost again, when Judge Nicholas Garaufis ruled that the state did not unlawfully single out religion for its restrictions, noting that its rules applied to other non-religious gatherings as well.

“We literally have no cases in these churches, nothing, zero — because we’ve been following the rules,” said diocesan spokesperson Adriana Rodriguez. “We’re not the ones who should have to pay the price when it’s clear we’re not the issue.”

At the same time the Diocese of Brooklyn lost its first round in court, Judge Kiyo Matsumoto of the Federal District Court in Brooklyn ruled in a case brought by rabbis and synagogues that Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s order does not unconstitutionally target religious exercise. But five churches in Brooklyn no longer located in the “red zone” of COVID concern were able to reopen the weekend of Nov. 7-8 for Mass, according to a diocesan statement.

However, the efforts of the Diocese of Brooklyn to get back to church continue. The diocese is appealing to the U.S. Supreme Court in its case against New York’s COVID restrictions.

This isn’t only an American issue, either. In Britain, different areas have adopted different rules. England, for instance, has developed a tier system in which, at the highest level (Tier 3), houses of worship are allowed to stay open, but households are not allowed to mix. 

In Wales, on the other hand, a “firebreak lockdown” began on Oct. 23, in which people must simply stay home.

“Wales has decided to close the churches again,” tweeted Father David Palmer, a priest of the Personal Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham in Nottingham, on Oct. 19. “I will be arrested before I deny the sacraments to the people of God again. And I repent for having backed down before. Eternal life comes before this life … or our faith means nothing.” 

 

Free the Mass

Less common than these individual acts of protest is news about religious organizations arguing that faith is essential — and gaining greater freedom as a result. 

In California, the Archdiocese of San Francisco provided both hope and a blueprint for the March for Faith, when as many as 1,800 Catholics processed through the streets on Sept. 20 to protest the city of San Francisco’s limits on worship. 

In an interview with the Register, Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone of San Francisco said he hadn’t wanted to jump to conclusions about the city’s apparently discriminatory treatment of houses or worship — even when the city’s COVID rates held where they were supposed to, for as long as they were supposed to — and the city flip-flopped on its decision that worship could resume in May. 

Then the city announced that outdoor worship could resume in June — with a maximum of 12 worshippers. Inside a house of worship, though, only one person was allowed to pray at a time.

“They were not only allowing street protests to go on; the city was facilitating them and participating in them. The mayor herself spoke at at least one of these protests. They were allowing this to go on without any limit of number of people,” the archbishop pointed out. 

“They were allowing indoor retail to operate at 50% capacity, but not us?”

Archbishop Cordileone cited an article that looked at worshippers at 1 million Masses celebrated over a 14-week period. “They could not find one infection when they [the worshippers] followed the safety protocols,” he said. 

“People are continuing to get infected. They’re getting infected somewhere … but they’re not getting it in a Catholic church.” 

With a rising sense of frustration, the archbishop gathered a group together, and the idea for “Free the Mass” was born. Two days after the event, San Francisco Mayor London Breed announced that, on Sept. 30, places of worship could hold indoor services at 25% capacity, up to 100 people — putting San Francisco in alignment with California’s COVID regulations. (While the Free the Mass demonstration surely made an impact, a letter to Breed from the Justice Department helped the cause.) 

But, like Arnall and the participants in the March for Faith, the archbishop does not feel that this goes far enough. 

The archbishop said, “With a lot of people complaining, I’m hoping this will get some attention, and we’ll get more reasonable and consistent treatment.” 

When people of faith argue that they are being discriminated against, it’s not uncommon for them to be berated — as though they are over-dramatizing the importance of practicing one’s faith. 

What can you say in such a situation? 

Archbishop Cordileone suggests emphasizing our identity as the Church. 

“It’s our identity to come together and gather. Our very name [Church] means ‘a people gathered together, in and under Christ,’” he said. 

Additionally, there’s no way to virtually receive sacramental Communion — and the Eucharist is central to our Catholic faith. 

“For those who have ears to hear it,” the archbishop added, “we have a natural right protected by the First Amendment that we shouldn’t have to explain to anyone.” 

Elisabeth Deffner writes from Orange, California. 

How Can You Take Action? 

  • Sign the “Free the Mass” petition: FreetheMass.org
  • Contact the March for Faith about holding a march in your area: MarchforFaith.org
  • If you’d like to urge your bishop to speak out on unfair limits to worship, reach out to a respected priest in your diocese who can provide guidance and serve as a liaison between the people in the pews and Church leadership.

                                                                                                                                                           — Elisabeth Deffner

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