Eliminate religious mask exemption, FFRF asks Columbus officials

Church Mask

The Columbus City Council should remove its exception for houses of worship from mask-wearing requirements, urges the Freedom From Religion Foundation.

The City Council passed an ordinance on July 6 requiring that masks be worn in public, including in most public facilities, but exempted religious entities such as churches. FFRF is strongly objecting to such an exemption, which flies in the face of science and the public welfare.

“The Supreme Court has long held that the Establishment Clause ‘mandates government neutrality between religion and religion, and between religion and nonreligion,’” FFRF Co-Presidents Dan Barker and Annie Laurie Gaylor write to Columbus City Council President Shannon G. Hardin. “Exempting religious facilities from the City Council’s mask ordinance violates this basic stricture.”

Since the beginning of this pandemic, houses of worship have repeatedly been shown to be hotbeds for spreading COVID-19. In one Texas church alone, 50 congregants and staff members, including the pastor and his wife, recently have tested positive to COVID-19. That church, Calvary Chapel of San Antonio, reopened in May and even though ushers, greeters and leaders of the children’s ministry wore face masks, about half of the congregants did not. Pastor Ron Arbaugh says he regrets announcing that congregants could hug one another. One-third of all coronavirus cases in a California county’s first outbreak were traceable to a single church congregation, for instance. The numbers were even larger elsewhere. As Reuters reported: “South Korea announced thousands of coronavirus cases in the space of only a few days in late February. The surge in cases centred mostly around one main cluster from a church in Daegu city.”

These numbers make sense, FFRF points out. Many religious facilities are uniquely susceptible to spreading the disease and should be held to at least the same mask-wearing standards as similar secular facilities. Worship services usually require people to sit together in an enclosed space for an extended period of time to share a communal experience. Even when conducted under social distancing measures, this type of gathering creates a high risk of coronavirus transmission. Mask-wearing policies are guided by clear science: The more people who gather, the more viruses spread. Masks significantly mitigate that spread.

Governments already regularly place limits on worship gatherings that jeopardize public health, FFRF emphasizes. For instance, the government prohibits churches from cramming too many people into a building in violation of fire codes and also requires that church buildings comply with necessary building codes. The congregants’ right to gather and worship is limited by the government’s need to protect those congregants from being trampled to death and the community from a fire. Requiring masking due to a pandemic is even more crucial.

“Bestowing an exemption on places of worship puts an entire city’s population potentially at risk,” adds Gaylor. “Columbus officials should refrain from engaging in such religious pandering at the expense of public health.”

The coronavirus makes no exemption for religious facilities; Columbus’ response to the virus must do the same.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is a nationwide nonprofit organization with more than 32,000 members and several chapters across the country, including over 800 members and a chapter in Ohio. Its purposes are to protect the constitutional separation between state and church, and to educate the public on matters related to nontheism.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation, based in Madison, Wis., a 501(c)(3) nonprofit educational charity, is the nation's largest association of freethinkers (atheists, agnostics), and has been working since 1978 to keep religion and government separate.

FFRF is a non-profit, educational organization. All dues and donations are deductible for income-tax purposes.

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FFRF is a member of the Secular Coalition for America

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