Over the next several months Scroll will deliver a series on the first amendment. Scroll will analyze how the rights promised in the constitution have developed over time and what their future looks like. This article is the first review of religious freedom.
During the country’s weeks of complete state shutdowns and gradual re-openings, many congregations were unable to meet in person due to COVID-19 related public health and safety guidelines. The government deemed churches a part of the business category.
While the state of Idaho’s reopening included churches being opened in phase one, some believe that closures and limitations on church meetings violated their constitutional right to religion.
John Thomas, a professor of religion who teaches religious freedom classes at BYU-Idaho, called this situation an “extreme case,” where the government had to balance religious freedom or liberty and other government responsibilities like health and safety of communities.
“It’s a perfect example of how governments and private groups like churches have to balance competing interests,” said Thomas.
He referenced lawsuits filed across the country fighting rules and restrictions imposed on church leaders for their congregations. The lawsuits he mentioned took place in California and Nevada, where appointed lawyers objected state governments’ decision to only allow a certain number of people in churches while not placing the same restrictions on places like casinos.
According to an article by ABC News, similar lawsuits have taken place in Minnesota, but the majority have been in California. These lawsuits are for countless reasons, including six-foot distance requirements, mask mandates, member attendance limitations and other precautions put in place for the coronavirus.
Thomas referenced Elder David A. Bednar’s talk at a BYU religious freedom conference titled And When He Came to Himself, that took place during the summer. Thomas’ takeaway included using caution in recognizing what governments can and cannot do.
“He sort of mentioned the principle that if you’re singling out churches for restrictions that are applied to comparable activities, or if you’re treating churches less favorably as a government that’s a problem,” Thomas said. “His other point was, we shouldn’t treat an exceptional experience like this (as) establishing a new normal on what governments can do in relation to religion.”
In the talk that Thomas referenced, Elder Bednar talked about the importance of meeting together in congregations.
“One key realization is that for most faith communities, gathering for worship, ritual, and fellowship is essential; it is not merely an enjoyable social activity,” Elder Bednar said.
Elder Bednar continued on about what gathering accomplished for people from scriptural references and how members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints use gathering to fellowship and partake of the sacrament. He continues on showing the importance of gathering in various faiths.
“Gathering, in short, is at the core of faith and religion. Indeed, if the faithful are not gathering, sooner or later they will begin to scatter,” Elder Bednar said in his talk. “And because gathering lies at the very heart of religion, the right to gather lies at the very heart of religious freedom.”
Elder Bednar said that there has been no other time in our nation’s history to put such heavy limitations on worship and religious freedom. He shared four reflections he had during the initial peak of the pandemic, including:
1. Government power can never be unlimited.
2. Religious freedom is paramount among our fundamental rights.
3. Religious freedom is fragile.
4. In a time of crisis, sensitive tools are necessary to balance the demands of religious liberty with the just interests of society.
Thomas expressed his concern for the freedom of religious rights as he included hindrance of churches’ right to assemble for worship. He also mentioned that the church’s missionary efforts has been restricted with proselyting allowance being limited. He pointed out that much of this restriction initially came from the direction of church leadership, but was eventually restricted by local, state or national law.
However, in addition to Thomas’ deep concern for the religious freedom of citizens all across the country, he admires and appreciates the measures taken out of respect for the health of members.
He adds that he would err on the side of health and safety with mask-wearing and distancing rules put in place at churches that are open, even though he still has not been permitted to attend church in six months.
“My concern about people who are objecting to wearing masks, and they say they are Christians, they really ought to study the scriptures because the Christian message (is) love your neighbor as yourself,” Thomas said. “The whole logic of mask wearing has been, it’s not going to protect you particularly well, but it may protect your neighbor.”
Thomas believes that while physical health has been protected, hinderance to spiritual health of many members occurred.
“There may be some religions, where the communal element of worship is so important that the idea of a sacrament in your home would just be objectionable or too watered down,” Thomas said. “And then there are others where that would be really beautiful.”
Matthew Harris, a freshman studying mechanical engineering, saw the fact that he was allowed to still worship in his home as a sign that his rights weren’t taken.
“I think it was for the greater good that we didn’t meet in chapels,” Harris said. “They didn’t move against religion, they moved against meeting in large groups in a confined area.”
When thinking about the future for the pandemic and religious freedom, Thomas said he feels cautiously optimistic because he believes that Church leaders will be able to adapt and find new ways to meet needs.
Reverend Garen Pay, the pastor at Hope Lutheran Church in Idaho Falls, said that after the state shutdown began, he had to scramble to figure out how his church would be able to meet during the period of closure.
He personally doesn’t believe that church closures were a violation of constitutional rights because businesses were closed too.
“As long as the churches were being treated in the same manner as businesses, (I) did not feel that they were being targeted or there was persecution or anything to that effect,” said Pay. “Once businesses started opening up just tons and tons of people at Walmart and stuff like that. Then I would have been more uncomfortable with them mandating closures for us but they released us at the same time as other businesses for the most part.”
He believes that if churches were to be deemed as not essential, then infringement on religious rights would have taken place. He thinks churches are essential for the salvation side purposes as well as the social and emotional well-being of its members.
“Since we are in a system of government that supposedly values religious freedom, yes, I think it would be an overstep to say that it was not essential in and above other businesses,” Pay said.
Pay said that some members of his congregation felt that the government was overstepping their bounds by closing churches.
“They thought we were reacting in fear, and so they weren’t happy with the closure,” Pay said.
Additionally, Pay has had members in his congregation recognize the hard decision made by the government and Pay. They see that these decisions continue to be made for the safety of members of the congregation and community.
Pay references the Bible in pointing out what it means to be a Christian and to balance following government officials with following God.
“(For) the majority of Bible-believing Christians, there’s scriptures that say we are to submit to the governing authority,” Pay said. “And that’s why we tried to follow the CDC guidelines as much as we could. However, there’s also a caveat in there that at a certain point we obey God rather than men. And so, if there is an overstep, or when the government is telling us to do something that we don’t think is faithful to our consciences or our religion. Then we are tasked with going and doing what we think is faithful right anyways.”
For Harold Rose, a Bishop and faculty member of BYU-I, he recognized the need for churches to close to ensure the safety of those who might be at risk, but saw that some of the students in his ward suffered spiritually and socially.
“I saw it affect them mostly in the fact that they couldn’t share (the) feelings of feeling the spirit, and growing spiritually from each other’s testimonies,” said Rose.
However, even though he did see some students suffer, he doesn’t believe that what happened infringed upon religious freedom rights because the Church’s leadership made the call to close churches before most businesses shut down.
Rose said that due to the wide variety of demographics that exist in The Church it was wise to close to make it fair for everyone. There may have been some members that wouldn’t have felt comfortable coming and some that wouldn’t have been safe coming and it wouldn’t have been fair to tell some to come and some to not.
“As far as taking away our religious rights, I don’t think that happened because we can still worship, just on a different platform than being in church,” Rose said. “Now if the government had said something like, you are not going to meet period, and you can’t meet in any aspect, yes, that would that would constitute infringing on our rights.”
Rose also said that in addition to being the ones who closed church, the leadership of The Church has also been the ones wary of opening back up. The Church has done things to prepare, like change the way ministering is done as well as implement Come Follow Me.
The government did step in eventually and close all non-essential businesses to maintain safety, but The Church prepared for this in advance with other policies being implemented.
“Is religion essential? Yes. Is going to church essential? Not necessarily,” Pay said.
Pay also referenced the talk by Elder Bednar and said that even though he didn’t feel his religious rights infringed upon, Elder Bednar said to be cautious because of what could happen if our religious rights get taken from us by the government.