A Louisiana church’s assertion that it has a right to continue organizing big gatherings — even in the face of the coronavirus pandemic — has no basis in the Constitution, contends the Freedom From Religion Foundation.
A Baton Rouge church is defying statewide measures to contain the coronavirus by continuing to hold large services, claiming a constitutional right to do so. Louisiana has declared a ban on gatherings of more than 50 people, which the church described as a “dictator law.” When police officials attempted to protect public health by shutting the event down, they were rebuked by a U.S. member of Congress, Clay Higgins, who opined that the state has “no authority to enforce this proclamation nor any ban on worship.”
Higgins is wrong. While the Constitution’s religious liberty protections are robust and essential, they are not entirely without limits.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation vigorously defends the fundamental American guarantees of religious freedom, and freedom of assembly, every day. We understand the alarm when the government steps in to stop a worship assembly, directly confronting both of these constitutional protections. Courts have historically stepped in to guard these rights when necessary, but have always noted that the government may be justified in interfering with individual rights if there is an abundantly clear, compelling reason for doing so.
It is hard to imagine a clearer need for dispersing church services than a highly infectious global pandemic. Bans on large gatherings are not designed to uniquely target churches — and churches should not be exempted from the universal bans. Creating exceptions undermines the purpose of the ban because it connects huge numbers of people who are otherwise safely isolated.
Higgins exaggerates by describing the state’s emergency rule as a “ban on worship.” Churches and believers all over the country are worshipping alone, in small groups, or even in large groups online. Limiting large physical gatherings is not a ban on worship.
Gatherings like this don't just risk the lives of the church’s members. The real danger is in overwhelming the health care system. Doctors around the country are working overtime and already rationing beds and ventilators. Churches that hold services are demonstrating a complete lack of respect for those efforts and the lives of their community members.
President Trump has declared a national emergency, and public health officials agree that extreme measures are needed to overcome this crisis. Even Paula White, Trump’s “spiritual adviser,” eventually relented and cancelled an appearance at an event in Phoenix that initially intended to go on despite the pandemic. We all must make sacrifices. Taking indisputably necessary steps to protect public health is not an assault on religious freedom.