The Supreme Court’s ruling last Wednesday against discriminatory targeting of religious groups with COVID-19 restrictions marked a significant victory in the ongoing battle to preserve religious liberty. Since the outbreak of the pandemic, hostile stakeholders in public office have assaulted the first freedom through superciliously labeling religious services “nonessential.” Christians in much of the country now find themselves in the demeaning and intolerable position of being allowed to worship only in the manner and on terms dictated by politically motivated governors.
Respecting authorities’ claims about an unknown disease made sense early in the outbreak, but now after better scientific information shows many initial fears are false. Yet politicians refuse to come clean while ignoring their own rules forbidding us from fulfilling our Christian duties. So it is time for us once again to assert that church is the most essential activity, period. Instead of valiantly fighting in the vanguard, however, many religious leaders have quickly retreated.
It is one thing for a church leader to prayerfully consider the individual needs of his church, striving to maintain unity among members in disagreements, protecting the health of the vulnerable, and offering stability amid uncertainty. It is quite another for shepherds to forsake the assembling of their flocks and enable the propaganda that congregating freely to worship God is selfish and “could kill grandma.” This unbiblical stance also overlooks the hypocrites in public office and the media who don’t even play by their own silly rules and ignore the data, for much lesser purposes than the health of our souls.
Many such religious leaders are neglecting the soul-saving mission of the church. The notion that being a good Christian requires indefinite cessation of communal worship — and for Catholics, the suspension of the sacraments — to prevent the spread of illness is a falsehood that has confused the faithful and undermined religious freedom.
Supreme Court Upholds Religious Liberty
In the case brought by the Orthodox Jewish group Agudath Israel of America and the Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn, New York, against Gov. Andrew Cuomo, the Supreme Court held that “the restrictions at issue here, by effectively barring many from attending religious services, strike at the very heart of the First Amendment’s guarantee of religious liberty.” In a concurring opinion, Justice Neil Gorsuch posed a pertinent rhetorical question: “Who knew that public health would so perfectly align with secular convenience?”
Gorsuch held that “the only explanation for treating religious places differently seems to be a judgment that what happens there just isn’t as ‘essential’ as what happens in secular spaces.” He warned that “in too many places, for far too long, our first freedom has fallen on deaf ears.”
For several months now, elected officials and many church leaders around the country have flagrantly ignored religious liberty. States such as California, Oregon, and Washington have witnessed a new wave of post-election crackdowns on religious services. In San Diego County, churches are currently prohibited from holding indoor services. Meanwhile, a San Diego court just issued a temporary order exempting coronavirus restrictions from applying to a strip club, ruling that such entertainment constitutes “constitutionally protected speech.”
In Oregon, new restrictions limit faith-based gatherings to a maximum of 25 people regardless of church size but allow businesses to continue operating at a reduced percentage of their total capacity. Archbishop of Portland Alexander Sample rightly argued that allowing a measly 25 worshipers in a cathedral that can seat 1,000 isn’t data-driven and doesn’t make sense.
The Church Is Essential
I expressed concern back in May about politicians labeling religious services “nonessential” and allowing the state to determine on what terms churches can hold services. At that time, Washington bishops effectively thumbed their noses at President Trump for declaring that state governments should allow houses of worship to reopen.
The bishops instead hitched their wagon to Gov. Jay Inslee’s rogue horse. Hence six months down the road, Inslee again targeted Washington churches as part of his latest round of arbitrary fiats. Church capacity is reduced to 25 percent, and congregational and choral singing is prohibited.
Meanwhile, the very authorities who tut-tut and wag fingers clearly don’t adhere to or believe in the merits of their own nonsense rules. Sanctimonious public officeholders have lectured us about keeping business closed, taking unemployment on the chin, staying home, and wearing masks while they visit salons, attend private dinners, and jet off out of state for holidays with family. The duplicity of notorious mask shamers such as CNN’s Chris Cuomo and White House correspondents Kaitlan Collins and Jonathan Karl has similarly been on display.
The hypocrisy is not limited to the secular sphere. Pope Francis condemned peaceful lockdown protests despite the World Health Organization’s warning against using lockdowns as the primary means of controlling the virus. Francis believes that closing churches, businesses, and schools, and forcing people out of work are all “necessary for people’s protection.” He has even canceled public celebration of Christmas liturgies at the Vatican.
Yet Francis didn’t appear particularly worried about Wuhan virus transmission when, free from any semblance of social distancing and masks, he enjoyed a cozy chat about poverty and social justice with a group of handsomely paid NBA players and fellow pals of the Chinese Communist Party. Evidently, on protecting the freedom to assemble, to provide for one’s family, and even to freely worship, government-imposed restrictions are non-negotiable, but when it’s about racial and economic politics, the holy grail of neo-Marxists, lockdowns are a suggestion only.
Against this backdrop, Christians should be prepared for the usual suspects in public office and the press, facilitated by an array of religious leaders, to crack down on Christmas celebrations. We will no doubt hear more of the “we do this not out of fear but out of love” mantra. Given, however, that the survival rate is 94.6 percent for those 70 years and older and between 99.5-99.997 percent for those 69 and younger, rapid breakthroughs in therapeutics have been announced, three reportedly effective vaccines are on the way, and government authorities are flouting their own restrictions, the “love thy neighbor” lecture is becoming as tedious as it is false.
Christians Need Church to Obey God’s Commands
The Gospels tell us the greatest commandment is to love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, and mind. We cannot fulfill the second greatest commandment to love our neighbor as ourselves if that love is not solidly founded in an encounter with God. This means gathering with the faithful in sung praise and thanksgiving, as we read in Psalms and was the custom from the earliest church, as well as explicitly commanded in scripture.
The Greek word for church, “ekklesia,” comes from the Old Testament and originally referred to the assembly of the people of Israel. When St. Paul first used the term, he intended it as the new community of believers in Christ. This “ekklesia” is not a human association borne of common interests and beliefs but a summoning by God himself.
For Catholics, the encounter with God is achieved even more profoundly through the sacrament of the Eucharist. Jesus is literally and wholly present — body and blood, soul and divinity — under the appearances of consecrated bread and wine. Whatever way you look at it, religious services are essential, and church leaders should say so.
Religious leaders must get their priorities straight. No doubt, pastors are genuinely concerned for the health of the most vulnerable in their communities and trying to accommodate the confusion and fears of their congregants. Some must feel their hands are tied by unsupportive leadership. Still others, I suspect, find themselves effectively cornered by congregants whose political indoctrination runs deeper than their catechesis.
Nevertheless, the role of preachers is to win souls for Christ, not to protect us or themselves from physical infirmity. St. Paul urges a return to God through Christ and cautions against domination by earthly pleasures and preoccupations. In other words, if, as St. Ambrose of Milan taught, we have a wound to heal, Christ is the doctor; if we are parched by fever, he is the spring; if we fear death, he is life; and if we are in darkness, he is light.
After a dismal year, and in sober anticipation of Joe Biden’s threatened “dark winter,” it is more important than ever for Christians to unite in praise of the Light that shines in the darkness and which the darkness has never put out. We should demand that our religious leaders mark the Nativity with fitting pomp and ceremony and refuse to support churches whose pastors spread or cower behind the lie that the celebration of Christmas is nonessential.