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Are Churches Essential? Weighing Public Health vs. Religious Concerns

By Joshua Israel Kayiwa

Throughout the COVID-19 Pandemic, many church leaders have disagreed with governing authorities and health advisors about mandated lockdown procedures. More than a few pastors have been arrested for resisting lockdown, and many health experts and officials have opposed initiatives to reopen churches.

What's the problem?

Numerous church leaders have disagreed with each other and with civic leaders on the essentiality of churches in citizens’ day-to-day lives. Some pastors followed state mandates and temporarily ended in-person services when ordered to, whereas other pastors like Rodney Howard-Browne of River Tampa Bay Church in Florida said, “I’ve got news for you, this church will never close.” During this Pandemic, it is imperative that all members of our society, whether religious or not, who discuss and converse on the essentiality of houses of worship take into consideration two crucial aspects of the conversation: the aspect of values and the aspect of science.

Both the cultural values of groups within our society as well as the latest scientific knowledge of experts are important to consider when engaging in a civic discussion on any matter in general. When considering both these aspects of civic discussion, one can ultimately realize that it is best for houses of worship to remain categorized as “non-essential.” Unfortunately, because both government leaders and church leaders have often neglected addressing either the values of society or the current scientific data when giving their suggestions on whether churches are essential, much unnecessary disagreement and confusion have occurred among them and their followers.

Many Church leaders have pushed back against the categorization of Churches as “non-essential." To these churches, it can seem ignorant and even offensive to label a house of worship as non-essential because they see their churches as doing the very work of God. In a petition of governing leaders to relabel houses of worship as essential, church leaders referenced constitutions and national anthems of numerous countries when they asked, “How can ‘God keep our land’, ‘save us all’, or ‘find help in his trust’ if God and church/faith organizations that represent God are ignored, shut down, or considered unessential?” These leaders find deep fault in the official descriptions of churches used during this pandemic and in the regulations enacted as a result of being called “non-essential.”

Rob McCoy, a pastor of a church in Vernon, California, defied a judge’s orders by holding Sunday worship despite receiving a prior warning, stating, “We're here because the church is essential." Pastors such as McCoy clearly have a heart of loyalty to and reverence of the work of their churches, and for that reason they express that their churches have high importance. His specific verbiage—that “the church is essential”—is clearly a pushback against the labeling of certain organizations as more essential than others.

However, in examining the situation of government labeling and putting regulations on churches during this pandemic, church leaders and members must first examine what exactly officials mean by the word “essential'' and also why officials have implemented the use of it. If church leaders and members simply react without taking time to research into matters or think critically, then they act only out of emotion, impulse, and misguided values. This can lead to unneeded clashes with authorities and dangerous group-rallying on invalid positions.

What is an essential service?

In Illinois COVID-19 Executive Order No. 8, Governor JB Pritzker defined essential business to include Healthcare and Public Health Operations, Human Services Operations, Essential Governmental Functions, and Essential Infrastructure, and businesses providing medicine, groceries, social services, agricultural products, media services, financial services, and educational services amongst many other services and goods. In other words (according to public policy commentators), an essential business is one which the “public relies on in their day-to-day life, “is critical for a functional society,” and provides “life-sustaining services." Under these definitions, it is clear that the word “essential" refers to crucial supplies and services for the material well-being of citizens—physical services people cannot live without.

When churches become outraged for not being deemed essential, they often are not interpreting the definitions that governments and businesses use correctly. Church leaders might argue that they help save people’s livelihoods or that they are necessary to save people's spiritual lives, but they cannot claim that their houses of worship provide irreplaceable services necessary for physical life. Leaders must speak on what government officials mean by the term “essential” rather than speaking or acting on their perceived connotation of the term.

Often when defending their churches’ essentiality, leaders will cite their spiritual or social importance. However, in doing so, they are not addressing the same issues that officials are concerned about, thus disqualifying their own arguments. The best leverage churches might use for deeming Sunday worship as essential is citing churches' benefits to mental health, an aspect of physical wellness. However, we rarely see arguments involving mental health stated by proponents of reopening churches.

It can be dangerous to hijack terms used by officials in order to justify our own desired actions. Church leaders who resist the labeling of churches as non-essential often re-define the term “essential” simply as “important.”

Addressing Arguments for Reopening Churches

Some claim that churches should reopen because businesses like video game stores and liquor stores are allowed to be open. However, as stated before, it is crucial to address why authorities are putting regulations in place.

First, we know that lockdowns were instilled for the primary reason of preventing social interaction. Stores such as the liquor or video game stores are not areas that encourage much social interaction since customers can buy their items and leave immediately. In houses of worship, however, social interaction in fellowship, greeting, and worshipping together is common practice. Members also often stay in the building for several hours, increasing the likelihood of COVID-19 transmission. Comparing these stores to a church reveals that proponents of this argument are not critically thinking about the purpose behind COVID-19 restrictions. If other social locations like bars were opened, then church leaders might have reason to argue against injustice. In this case, addressing this issue would be speaking on the matter-at-hand, rather than debating superficial and tangential issues.

Another argument many pastors use to reopen their churches is that the constitution defends their right of freedom of gathering. Pastors such as Jack Roberts from Kentucky have defied their Governor's orders, stating, “He does not have the right, constitutionally, to make the comments that he's making and say you've got to do what he says to do.” While Pastors such as Roberts might technically be accurate in their constitutional analyses, their responses sadly reveal a prideful mindset towards the entire crisis. Citing constitutional rights chooses not to address the issues of public safety but instead focuses on making political statements. Leaders ought not to focus on what they can do, but what they should do out of care for others.

Addressing Arguments against Closing Churches

Although certain church leaders have overlooked some important civic aspects of reopening, many health experts, political leaders, and general proponents of closing houses of worship have often made the same mistake. Although the scientific reasoning backing up a civic decision is very important, we must also remember the importance of people’s values in civic discussion.

Leaders must always address people’s foundational values before giving a public order. In the case of closing houses of worship, when officials are discussing and creating plans for executing proper restrictions for churches, they must remember to acknowledge the values of the group they are dealing with. When attempting to create and successfully implement a government mandate involving religious populations, it is crucial to make sure the populations’ pertinent values are not being threatened, and then to communicate this reality to the populace in order to achieve maximum cooperation.

Unfortunately, the primary communication delivered by some officials has been of purely scientific language. Although it is important to remind the population to follow data and scientific principles, speakers at a federal, state, community and even personal levels must learn to speak the “language” of their audiences. In the cases of the temporarily closing down churches, the “language” is simply acknowledgement of the Biblical values that the Christian population holds. Rather than engaging in an adversarial atmosphere, it is much more efficient to acknowledge the spiritual concerns of Christian leaders and take unified action on how to address them.

Reaching Mutual Understanding

As a Christian myself, I believe in the gathering of the Church and have regularly gathered for worship for my entire life. However, I also believe that temporarily suspending physical worship gatherings—especially for safety reasons—is not necessarily a spiritual pitfall or even a sin. Pastor Copenhavor writes in his article "Is the Church Essential," “We can affirm that Christians ought to lead the way in obeying many of the orders our governing authorities have issued regarding the coronavirus, for they do not conflict with our obedience to the Lord Jesus.” I have also seen how my own church in Nashville has taken health precautions seriously and also thrived spiritually using online resources.

If political leaders gathered numerous pastors of health-conscious mindsets, health professionals, as well as the pastors who defy public health orders, they could confront scientific data while fostering discussion on Biblical values involved in the situation. Such a collaborative approach would communicate a message of the scientific importance of health precaution and also appeal to other religious values, bringing mutual understanding about why it is ethical to observe public health mandates.

When it comes to civic discussion and deciding what is best for a community, both cultural values as well as scientific data must be considered and presented. I feel that temporarily closing churches until the pandemic is mitigated neither violates pertinent Biblical values nor conflicts with scientific data. Disagreement on civic matters is always understandable, but this disagreement ought always to be based on relevant evidence with the goal of mutual understanding and cooperation.

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