The Freedom From Religion Foundation is expressing its concern to the Delaware governor about religious exceptions to his recently enacted mask mandate.
Amid a spike in Covid-19 cases led by the Omicron variant, Gov. John Carney has signed a new mask mandate on Monday, Jan. 10, that admirably requires citizens to wear face masks in most public places. Unfortunately, it makes an exception for churches and other houses of worship.
“To protect the health and safety of all Delaware residents, we ask that you apply your mask mandate’s mask-wearing requirements to all public spaces, including churches and other houses of worship,” FFRF Co-Presidents Dan Barker and Annie Laurie Gaylor urge the governor in a formal letter. “The coronavirus unfortunately does not relent based on the type of building one enters. To be effective, neither must Delaware’s response to the virus.”
The Supreme Court has long held that the Establishment Clause “mandates government neutrality between religion and religion, and between religion and nonreligion,” FFRF emphasizes. Exempting religious facilities from the state’s mask order violates this basic stricture.
FFRF agrees with Carney’s sentiment in his official statement that all Delawareans should join in the fight to face this latest Covid surge, which is why it is particularly perplexing that his mandate exempts churches and other houses of worship. Religious gatherings spread Covid just as well, if not more efficiently, than any other type of gathering, FFRF points out.
And since the beginning of this pandemic, houses of worship have repeatedly been shown to be hotbeds for spreading the pandemic. One-third of all cases in a California county’s first coronavirus outbreak were traceable to a single church congregation. The numbers were even bigger elsewhere. As Reuters reported on the pandemic’s initial spread: “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.” That article documents the harrowing story of one infected person attending two church services and spreading Covid to another 1,200 people and that a single “church cluster accounts for at least 60 percent of all cases in South Korea.”
Many religious facilities are uniquely susceptible to spreading the disease and consequently should be held to at least the same mask-wearing standards as similar secular facilities, FFRF underscores. 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.
Governments already regularly place limits on worship gatherings that jeopardize public health. 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.
The state/church watchdog points out that statistics on churches as active conduits for Covid-19 date to earlier variants, before the supertransmissible omicron variant evolved, making the Delaware governor’s exemption for churches during this surge all the more reckless.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation is a nationwide nonprofit organization with more than 35,000 members across the country, including in Delaware. FFRF’s purposes are to protect the constitutional separation between state and church and to educate the public on matters related to nontheism.