The Supreme Court has decided that there is something not quite kosher about padlocking houses of worship, or imposing extreme limits on religious gatherings which amounts to the same thing, while bars and stores remain open.
Wrote Judge Gorsuch:
Under the Governor’s edict, a 10- screen ‘multiplex’ may host 500 moviegoers at any time. A casino, too, may cater to hundreds at once, with perhaps six people huddled at each craps table here and a similar number gathered around every roulette wheel there. Large numbers and close quarters are fine in such places. But churches, synagogues, and mosques are banned from admitting more than 50 worshippers—no matter how large the building, how distant the individuals, how many wear face masks, no matter the precautions at all.
In Nevada, it seems, it is better to be in entertainment than religion. Maybe that is nothing new. But the First Amendment prohibits such obvious discrimination against the exercise of religion. The world we inhabit today, with a pandemic upon us, poses unusual challenges. But there is no world in which the Constitution permits Nevada to favor Caesars Palace over Calvary Chapel.
You probably consider this rather obvious. There is a reason that the right to worship is listed first in the Bill of Rights. So thank you Supreme Court for doing what we thought was your job, even if the decision came about nine months late.
The disgrace is not only that it took so long to act. It is also that the ruling was narrow: 5 to 4. Four justices on the Supreme Court seem not to have even a rudimentary understanding of the Constitution. That’s a chilling revelation.
As for the churches themselves, for many the ruling might come too late. The mandatory closures were brutal. In San Jose, California, for example, Calvary Chapel was fined $350,000 for violating public health orders. Santa Clara County threatened the pastors with jail time for not following regulation. The court also issued a restraining order, requiring the church to comply with public health orders.
What has this done to attendance? Barna Research reports that between April and May, 32% of practicing Christians disclosed not going to church in person or online. Eighteen percent are donating less to their places of worship.
Over Thanksgiving, I was deeply saddened to hear the story of one central Texas Baptist church that has been nearly gutted over this ghastly year of lockdowns. They were shut entirely for a month, partly due to fear but also because of a confusion over the law. People didn’t know what was and what was not permitted.
Also, the pastor feared the press. What if someone took pictures of people gathering and then media jackals start baying?
So in that time, people got used to not going. The choir disbanded. The choir director quit. The organist already experienced health issues, so he withdrew too. There was no replacement. Today the church is down in attendance by 75%. They still meet but only with one service when there used to be three to fit everyone in. One person stands up with a guitar and plays simple songs since he can’t play what is in the hymnal. People saunter in but it is just depressing.
Mostly people have just stopped going.
And why pay for services you do not use? The church is still surviving financially but this can’t keep up for too much longer. Everyone feels it. The end is nigh.
For many towns, church is about much more than doctrine and belief. It is about community. This is the one time in the week when people gather to check in on each other, to find out community news, to hear about weddings and funerals. They find out who needs a visit at the hospital. They hear about widows at home who need friends. They see people who are visiting from out of town, especially on holidays.
Even business gets done in the donuts-and-coffee hour after the services.
It is the center of community life, a real source of stability in a chaotic world.
I reasonably assume that this case is one of many. It’s a symptom of the shocking destabilization that has been inflicted on the whole country by governments at all levels.
There is a terrible psychological impact. The church for many was a rock. For generations. From birth to baptism to weddings to funerals, there is a ritual for everything. To stop participating would be unthinkable for most, even if they only end up at the church for special occasions. For many people who stop attending, just knowing it is there provides comfort and security.
But now? Not so much. The church has proven to be as fragile as a locally owned business or the public school down the street. It can be crushed by executive edict. Once that connection to people’s lives is broken, it is hard to repair.
Religion in general was already having a hard time of it in the United States. “In U.S., Decline of Christianity Continues at Rapid Pace,” says Pew Research.” U.S. Church Membership Down Sharply in Past Two Decades,” says Gallup. The lockdowns will accelerate this trend. For some churches on the brink, the lockdowns were the final blow.
Why did governments do this? We all know the excuse: virus hunting. Instead of letting people take their own risks, politicians and their advisors decided that surely houses of worship were spreading the virus.
Incredibly, in New York Hasidic Jews – who heroically resisted at every step – were singled out by the mayor and governor, reviving medieval scapegoating myths. And what evidence is there that Hasidic services were spreading the virus with severe outcomes? There was none. Not one shred of evidence.
So too with other religious events. Not one bit of evidence that I could find demonstrates that the worship of God in the presence of others would lead to death. Many churches have openly defied the orders and rightly so.
With all the carnage from these various “stringencies” designed to control the mostly uncontrollable, why focus on the tribulations of religious institutions? The history of liberty began with the idea of religious freedom. The realization that no great calamity would befall society if people were allowed to worship as they pleased then gave rise to all the other freedoms we took for granted until recently. It makes sense, then, that the long road to recovering our rights would begin here.