Shocking? Polls suggest that most Americans — including the faithful — don’t see public health measures as a threat to religious freedom.
Religious freedom is a wedge issue among politicians in this pandemic, but not among Americans, including believers.
OP/ED: Late last month, President Donald Trump announced that churches should be allowed to re-open immediately, adding that he would “override” non-compliant governors. The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty joined with some faith leaders in a letter to Minnesota Governor Tim Walz (D), announcing that they would ignore the state’s restrictions on their activities. Almost a month earlier, Texas Governor Greg Abbott (R) issued an executive order prohibiting local governments from closing houses of worship. Meanwhile, Indiana Governor Eric Holcomb (R) announced that he was opening houses of worship without a cap on attendance size.
Freedom of religion has clearly become a battlefront as public officials seek to slow the spread of COVID-19. Politicians are making pronouncements, media commentators are arguing either side at high volume, and the courts are weighing in. In fact, the Supreme Court just sided with the state of California and the state’s right to impose limits on places of worship.
Lost amid the cacophony is the fact that most Americans — including the faithful — don’t see public health measures as a threat to religious freedom.
Where’s the controversy?
In a poll released in early May, a representative survey of U.S. adults by the University of Chicago Divinity School and The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research found two-thirds of Americans don’t think that “prohibiting in-person religious services” during the pandemic is a violation of freedom of religion, and that includes a majority of evangelical Christians and Republicans, according to our analysis. When asked about “placing restrictions” on in-person religious services, rather than prohibiting them, 82% of American adults overall think that would not violate religious liberty.
In fact, fewer than 1-in-10 Americans (9%) thinks that in-person religious services should be permitted without restrictions during the pandemic. Think about that for a moment, against the backdrop of what might otherwise seem like a raging debate.
While white evangelical Christians and Republicans are more likely to support worship without restriction, fewer than one-fifth of them actually do. A higher percentage of American adults overall instead support allowing in-person services, but with restrictions such as limiting crowd size or physical distancing. The prohibition of in-person services altogether, however, is still the most popular option, at nearly 50% among those polled.
This doesn’t mean Americans are uncommitted to freedom of religion.
In another national poll we administered in February, shortly before the COVID-19 pandemic gripped the United States, a majority of respondents (55%) declared that religious freedom was very or extremely important to them. What this suggests is that Americans value freedom of religion highly, but have a nuanced view of its relation to safety and health. They seem to be balancing rights and risks, individual liberties and public health better than some political leaders.
For example, an overwhelming majority of respondents (76%) were in favor of allowing visits to parks, beaches, and other outdoor spaces during the outbreak, either with or without restrictions, presumably because the perceived health risks of such activities are lower. When asked about another constitutionally protected activity, political protests or rallies in public, Americans supported more prohibitions and limitations, presumably because the perceived risks are higher.
Playing games with public health
Tensions between public health and individual rights such as religious freedom are not new. Vaccination laws are case in point. In many states, all it takes to excuse a child from the vaccinations required to attend school is a parents’ affidavit that vaccination violates their religious beliefs. In our February poll, we found that nearly three-quarters of Americans favored denying un-vaccinated children access to public schools, and the same amount saw no violation of religious freedom in doing so.
But, amid the COVID-19 crisis, our political process may be turning freedom of religion into a threat to public health.
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In April the United States Justice Department sided with a Mississippi church in its legal challenge to local limits on drive-in worship, and in May a federal judge ruled that Tabernacle Baptist Church in Nicholasville, Kentucky — and churches all around the commonwealth — may hold in-person services despite limitations on gatherings designed to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
The perception of a conflict is clearly affecting public health policy.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention put together draft guidance for re-opening the country. They included using disposable dishes and utensils at restaurants, and closing every other row of seats in buses and trains. The CDC also recommended that congregations observe religious services via live streaming and warned against the sharing of hymnals and prayer books if in-person services were conducted.
The Trump administration shelved the CDC’s draft, reportedly over concerns that it violated freedom of religion. “Governments have a duty to instruct the public on how to stay safe during this crisis and can absolutely do so without dictating to people how they should worship God,” said Roger Severino, the director of the Department of Health and Human Services’ Office for Civil Rights. The CDC and the White House have yet to agree on guidance for the safe re-opening of churches, but the CDC issued interim guidance on May 22.
It is the responsibility of our leaders in a democracy like ours to adjudicate between the public good and individual rights. But there’s not really a conflict between public health and freedom of religion — at least in the eyes of the vast majority of the public, including many evangelical Christians and political conservatives.
Across the world, from Israel and Saudi Arabia to South Korea and the Vatican, governments and faith leaders have understood the risks of religious gatherings in this pandemic, and worked together to address them. The United States needs to do so as well.
This is probably not the last pandemic, and the dangers posed to public health by infectious disease will not go away. To meet the challenges ahead we need to resist the political tendency to amplify tensions between different rights by turning them into conflicts.
The American people recognize religious freedom and public health need not be mutually exclusive.
Kraig Beyerlein is an associate professor in the Department of Sociology at the University of Notre Dame and the director of the Center for the Study of Religion and Society. David Nirenberg is the interim dean of University of Chicago Divinity School. Kathryn Lofton is a professor of religious studies, American studies, history, and divinity at Yale University.Geneviève Zubrzycki is a professor in the Department of Sociology at the University of Michigan.
VERSE: “Let everything that has breath praise the LORD” Psalm 150
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