The Freedom From Religion Foundation is cautioning the Ohio governor that his exemption of religious gatherings from coronavirus-related restrictions is putting innumerable Ohioans at risk.
Ohio’s stay-at-home order, amended April 2, leaves out religious gatherings by defining them as “essential services.” This will quite certainly imperil Ohioans, FFRF warns.
The data doesn’t lie, asserts the national state/church watchdog. One-third of all COVID cases in one large California county can be traced to church services. The numbers are even bigger elsewhere. Reuters reports: “South Korea announced thousands of coronavirus cases in the space of only a few days in late February. The surge in cases centered mostly around one main cluster from a church in Daegu city.”
Gov. Mike DeWine has vocally encouraged churches to abide by prohibitory orders, but his call is undermined by his exemption, which is inadvisable on multiple counts, FFRF contends.
First, religious freedom does not require exempting churches from prohibitory orders.
“Americans have rights to worship and to assemble, but neither of those rights is unlimited and neither includes the right to risk other people’s lives,” FFRF Co-Presidents Annie Laurie Gaylor and Dan Barker write to Gov. Mike DeWine and Ohio Health Director Dr. Amy Acton. “Most importantly, neither right includes the right to risk or threaten the lives of other citizens.”
More than 100 years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court explained in a 7-2 opinion that society’s interest in stopping the spread of smallpox was greater than an individual’s religious rights, FFRF adds. And the court has reiterated this again and again. States already regularly limit worship gatherings that jeopardize public health. For instance, the government requires that church buildings comply with necessary fire and other building codes. Preventing large gatherings due to a pandemic is even more crucial.
Second, FFRF maintains, such exemptions unconstitutionally favor churches. Courts have long ruled that the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment bars the government from preferring one religion over another, or religion over nonreligion. The exemption for church services violates the First Amendment.
“Prohibiting large gatherings is not a ban on worship any more than speed limits are a ban on driving,” FFRF writes. “The short-term ban is guided by science: The more people that gather, the more viruses spread.”
Third, such exemptions are immoral and deadly, FFRF avers. Clerics seeking exemption from social-distancing orders are not simply asking for a right to gather and worship, they are also asking for a right to threaten the lives of every other member of the community.
DeWine needs to revise the stay-at-home order and remove the exemption for religious gatherings, FFRF urges. It is undermining the leadership and foresight he has displayed in battling the pandemic, with the exception of the governor’s callous exploitation of the coronavirus to try to shut down abortion clinics in his state, endangering women’s right to choose.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation has more than 31,000 members and several chapters all over the country, including over 800 members and a chapter in Ohio. FFRF protects the constitutional separation between state and church, and educates about nontheism.