HHS official’s ‘God’ statement reveals religion’s dangerous role in pandemic

The evangelical hold on the Trump administration is endangering the effort to combat the COVID-19 pandemic.

A senior official at the Department of Health and Human Services, described by the New York Times as having “deep ties to religious conservatives,” raised objections to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s reopening guidelines. (It was revealed last week that the White House had rejected the CDC’s guidelines for reopening the country.)

“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,” says Roger Severino, who is the director of the Department of Health and Human Services’ Office for Civil Rights. Severino tellingly once directed the DeVos Center for Religion and Civil Society at the Heritage Foundation. (Yes, a center named after that DeVos.)

A part of the reason for the rejection seems to have been “The Interim Guidance for Communities of Faith” in the blocked guidelines, which could not have been written in a more apologetic manner. It carefully notes that “no faith community should be asked to adopt any mitigation strategies that are more stringent than the mitigation strategies asked of similarly situated entities or activities in accordance with the Religious Freedom and Restoration Act (RFRA).” Other qualifiers in the guidance include:

— “This guidance is not intended to infringe on First Amendment rights as provided in the U.S. Constitution”;

—”The federal government may not prescribe standards for interactions of faith communities in houses of worship . . . ”;

—”CDC offers these suggestions that faith communities may consider and accept or reject, consistent with their own faith traditions, . . .”;

— “CDC offers the following suggestions for consideration to the extent consistent with each community’s faith tradition.”

The blocked recommendations include such noncontroversial advice as: “Protect staff and congregants who are at higher risk for severe illness encouraging use of options to participate virtually, if possible.” Other recommendations being spurned by Severino and the White House are such benign suggestions as holding gatherings outdoors or in large, well-ventilated areas, limiting seating to alternate rows, and avoiding or suspending choirs or musical ensembles. They also include restricting the sharing of frequently touched objects and modifying collection methods and avoiding sharing food from common dishes.

Severino released a statement last Thursday: “Protections against religious discrimination aren’t suspended during an emergency. This means the federal government cannot single out religious conduct as somehow being more dangerous or worthy of scrutiny than comparable secular behavior.” The Times reports that one version of the draft guidance related to communities of faith was actually left blank “with a note in capital letters referring to multiple federal agencies that have to come to agreement.”

One would think that churches would, above all, seek to protect their parishioners, generally an aging population in the United States, and would look with gratitude upon expert guidance on how to keep worshipers safe. The ignorant, adversarial response of all too many fundamentalists, not just of the Christian persuasion, is dismaying, if not surprising. But while we might expect such religious blindness in zealots, we must demand that our federal government be free from such religious sway, and be run by evidence, reason and science. As U.S. Rep. Jamie Raskin’s grand House resolution to proclaim a Day of Reason puts it: “Irrationality, magical thinking, and superstition have undermined the national effort to combat the COVID-19 pandemic.”

And may we at the Freedom From Religion Foundation say: Amen to that, brothers and sisters!

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