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Religious worship is not something that can simply be paused and held in stasis permanently. It is not an optional expression a person can set aside until conditions improve. Despite many on the left dismissing the necessity of congregation, or outright declaring it a danger to society, people who belong to a communal faith understand its importance.
For many, the experience of communal worship cannot be imitated through other means. Yet during the coronavirus pandemic, religious practice has been demonized by the left as selfish, and amoral, with worshipers shamed.
The New York Times, was almost gleeful in its reporting that Gerald O. Glenn, “A Virginia pastor who defied warnings about the danger of religious gatherings during the pandemic and vowed to keep preaching 'unless I’m in jail or the hospital' died over the weekend after contracting Covid-19.”
Bishop Glenn of New Deliverance Evangelistic Church in Virginia, was not flouting social distancing orders, but was instead implementing them during services. A film of his last sermon, on March 22nd, 2020, shows Glenn behind a pulpit and his congregation evenly spread out among the pews. New Deliverance has begun holding drive-in gatherings at the church.
However, these are the very kinds of gatherings that states have started policing. In Kentucky, under Governor Andy Beshear, officers were instructed to take down license plate numbers of those who attended Easter services.
In response to several states including churches, synagogues, mosques and other houses of worship in their stay-at-home orders, Rachel Laser of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State argued in favour of restricting religious gatherings, “The Constitution not only permits it, but demands it,” she said in a statement. “Such restrictions do not violate religious freedom; they ensure religious freedom is not misused in ways that risk people’s lives.”
This is not the view of those who are both religious and in favour of church and state separation, to be sure.
The arguments condemning “defiant” religious leaders from performing their duties, regardless of safety measures in place, ignore the social and cultural aspect of religious gatherings.
The non-religious may see no point in them, but people of many faiths understand them as absolutely necessary. Judaism, for example, is built upon the congregation. Chabad.org, an Orthodox Jewish resource, states, “A person should make an effort to pray in a synagogue with a minyan. G-d never rejects the prayers of a congregation, even if sinners are amongst the crowd. Even if a person's kavanah (concentration, intention) is imperfect, if he prays with a congregation, his prayers will be heard.”
A minyan is a requirement of 10 Jewish adults who gather together in public to pray. Certain services cannot be conducted without a minyan. Praying together as a group, as illustrated above, is a necessary part of Jewish experience. The Orthodox Jewish Union has advised suspending even these events for the time being. This is a choice, but it must be remembered that even in times of extreme danger, during pogroms and even during the Holocaust, Jews risked their lives to perform certain rituals in public together.
Christians around the world are also accustomed to gathering together for public worship. The gathering is not just a social experience but a spiritual one, shared as a group of like-minded believers.
Why can’t these gatherings happen while undergoing safety precautions? Is there more danger to the congregation and their families sitting 6 feet apart inside a church than standing 6 feet apart in line at a grocery store or at their job?
The left is deeply hostile to very idea of spiritual gatherings during a time of global crisis. Governors that have blocked religious services from continuing have authorized liquor stores as essential. These are confused priorities at best, and a failure to acknowledge the right of religious freedom at worst.
CAIR, The Council on American-Islamic Relations, has issued guidelines for Muslims in North America encouraging Muslims to follow state and national guidelines. Striking a balance between “essential” and “non-essential”, they advise minimal gatherings for certain religious obligations.
Surely Christians can find the same balance without being subjected to such public harassment and policing as we have seen recently. Faith is not optional for many, and the domineering, shaming view coming from leftists is that faith and worship are expendable. They are not.
People of faith, especially the most vulnerable within these communities, the elderly, the suffering and the isolated, must have hope for the future. The more we see the police raid church parking lots and state governors declaring rigid regulations against all religious gathers, the less hope these people will have.
Worse, it only encourages those of faith who feel targeted and attacked to rise up in defiance, which may put them at far more risk than if simply allowed to congregate peacefully and safely. Additionally, the faithful must not get used to the idea that their religious freedoms may be trampled. It will be hard to get back those rights that we willingly relinquish.
If this crisis continues forward for months or longer, our governments must understand that people of faith cannot live in spiritual isolation forever. Reasonable and rational safety measures must be accepted and utilized, but religious organizations must be permitted to decide for themselves what is and is not “essential.”