The government’s unprecedented decision to essentially “lock down” most of society and quarantine nearly everyone, including the healthy, and severely limit or ban religious gatherings at places of worship during the pandemic has inflicted significant collateral damage on religious individuals and religious institutions.
Perhaps the most significant immediate impact of the pandemic on religious practices was the seismic shift from in-person group worship to virtual, online worship, as governments used their emergency powers to impose harsh restrictions, allegedly related to the public health.
The long-term impacts of this coerced change are still being felt and the consequential damages are still being calculated. In retrospect, most religious leaders would undoubtedly agree that virtual worship is at best a temporary complement to, but not a viable long-term replacement for, in-person religious gatherings for worship.
The dividing line between whether a particular business or institution could remain open and continue to operate was whether it was deemed “essential” by the government. But why were places of worship not automatically deemed “essential” in the United States, where we have at least two clauses in the First Amendment protecting religious liberty?
Indeed, the government’s unforced error at the outset was its intentional refusal, perhaps not surprising in our increasingly secular and materialistic age, to affirmatively categorize and treat places of worship as “essential,” in spite of the First Amendment to the US Constitution’s clear language protecting this fundamental civil right to the free exercise of religion.
Yet, at the same time a myriad of secular government and business locations, not similarly protected by the Bill of Rights were, often, quite arbitrarily and capriciously declared “essential,” including hardware stores, big box stores, marijuana dispensaries, liquor stores, and even strip clubs. Places of worship, however, were discriminatorily relegated by a host of petty tyrants, blatantly eschewing their constitutional responsibilities, to a lower caste of “untouchable” institutions.
But for many, if not most of the faithful, regular in-person religious fellowship with other believers and worship of the Creator with others is, for them, as essential as the air they breathe, the water they drink or the food they eat. This is a spiritual reality that the materialistic secular state cannot, and will not, ever understand. Still, a few US states appropriately categorized places of worship as “essential” from day one. This rightly allowed the faithful to continue to meet while following the same precautions as secular essential locations. As public pressure increased, more and more thoughtful states appropriately added places of worship to their “essential” list. But others, including governors in New York, Michigan and California, stubbornly refused.
For their part, early in the outbreak, shuttered places of worship were largely compliant and docile, perhaps paralyzed by the overwhelming fear and panic over a pandemic then predicted to kill so many. The virus severely tested America’s legal and cultural commitment to its constitutionally enshrined right of religious liberty.
Unfortunately, it was a test we largely failed, especially during the early fear-crazed days of the pandemic. Far too many politicians and judges, filled with fear, blinded by the ever-shifting “science,” forgetting their oaths to defend and protect the Constitution, and perhaps for the sake of political expediency, were far too quick to affirm the pernicious lie that a small virus (with a 99.96 percent survival rate) had the authority to somehow indefinitely suspend our big cherished civil liberties and constitutional rights.
Many so-called “civil rights” organizations, including the leftist ACLU, were largely silent in the face of this blatantly and overreaching trampling of our civil rights and silencing of the lambs.
But even in a culture trending in a post-religious direction, the impact of the coerced closures was deep and wide. Nearly 50 percent of the US population, who regularly participate in religious services, was impacted.
According to Pew Research, while 76 percent of Americans identify with a religious faith, only 47 percent belong to a church or house of worship (it was 73 percent in 1937). Gallup acknowledges that the halting of in-person worship during the pandemic “is one of the most significant sudden disruptions in the practice of religion in U.S. history.”
As religious institutions moved to online services, physical attendance at in-person services dropped dramatically with many watching on their computers, tablets or on smart TVs. A few months into the pandemic, some even temporarily tried drive-in services in parking lots. Ironically, however, the government allowed these very same buildings to host large gatherings of people related to food pantries and public health efforts (deemed essential), but not worship services (not deemed essential). This can only be explained by, at best, the government’s cold indifference towards religion or, at worst, its naked hostility towards religious faith.
As the lockdowns continued and the virus survival rate of 99.96 percent was confirmed, religious leaders began to, slowly at first, push back and speak out. For Catholics and Protestant Christians, for example, holy communion was indefinitely suspended and weddings and baptisms were delayed. In some states, religious leaders were even forbidden from visiting and praying with the lonely, sick, and dying.
Masks were mandated, often even without any exceptions for communion or worship. Many Christian pastors argued that the government mandates were “unjust laws” (See Martin Luther King Jr’s Letter from A Birmingham Jail) forcing them to disobey God’s command to not forsake the regular assembling of believers (See Hebrews 10:14-25).
Not all religious leaders remained passive. More than 2,000 bold and courageous pastors in California signed the declaration of essentiality, committing to open church doors by Pentecost Sunday (May 31, 2020), with or without government permission. Places of worship started filing civil rights lawsuits alleging the government’s mandates violated the First Amendment to the US Constitution, specifically the rights guaranteed by the religious Free Exercise Clause, the Free Speech Clause and the right to Peaceable Assembly.
But even as churches were allowed to start reopening in late spring 2020, states continued to treat them more harshly than secular locations—relative to when they could start reopening (compared to secular locations), numerical limits and even capacity limits.
California’s Governor Gavin Newsom, for example, was the only governor in the US to impose a ban on indoor singing and chanting at places of worship. In the Golden State, places of worship did not have the sympathy of the federal judiciary. In fact, places of worship lost every single case in the federal district courts, at the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit and even at the US Supreme Court during the first eight months of the pandemic.
Good public policy always weighs the costs of a course of action compared to its benefits. Yet there is strong evidence that closing churches likely caused more public health harm than good. In spite of their public-facing commitment to follow the “science,” many states completely failed to take into account the scientifically well-established positive benefits of regular attendance at places of worship.
Sociologists have confirmed that religion is a major social institution that can serve to significantly integrate society and provide a positive stabilizing force in culture. In fact, there is more than 50 years of peer-reviewed scientific research documenting the enormous public health benefits of regular attendance at places of worship.
These established public health benefits, completely ignored by many governments’ virus “risk” analysis, include, but are not limited to, reduced stress, less risk of depression and suicide, fewer deaths of despair, better sleep, lower blood pressure, fewer instances of substance abuse, stronger marriages, lower mortality (including fewer deaths from heart disease and cancer), better immune function and lower risk of viral infection.
The overall healthy lifestyle of regular church attenders provides them with a lower risk profile for health complications and death from Covid-19. Sadly, public health officials and judges deciding church-state cases largely ignored this powerful evidence. The indefinite lockdowns and bans on religious services at places of worship likely undermined these well-established public health benefits and probably led to collateral harms to public health, including anxiety, depression, substance abuse, suicide, and other deaths of despair.
Public health officials made the critical error of myopically focusing on one thing only: slowing the virus spread. Everything else, including other important aspects of physical and spiritual health, be damned. This hyper-focus came at the great expense of ignoring nearly every other public health harm of their policies, including negative spiritual health impacts.
While the collateral damage is still being tabulated, their blindness in ignoring the negative impact of completely closing places of worship for months on end likely caused more damage than the virus itself and may have even cost more lives.
In a very unscientific manner, officials stubbornly ignored well-established scientific facts, demonstrating a powerful penchant to go to great lengths to justify and even double down on their anti-religious targeting and discrimination. They also failed to take into account the very low virus transmission risk at places of worship. Indeed, one contact tracing study confirmed that religious services accounted for less than 0.7 percent of the virus spread in New York, while 76 percent contracted it at home, following government orders to shelter in place.
The discriminatory restrictions on religious gatherings in some locations were so overbearing that on August 20, 2020, the US Department of State’s Office of International Religious Freedom issued a COVID-19 and Religious Minorities Statement, co-signed by 18 nations. The statement cautioned, “States should not limit the freedom to manifest religion or belief to protect public health past the point necessary, or close places of worship in a discriminatory manner.” The Statement also called on,
“[G]overnments, elected and appointed officials, and religious leaders to avoid language that scapegoats certain religious and belief communities. We are concerned by the spike in dangerous rhetoric that demonizes the religious “other,” including anti-Semitism and the blaming of Christian and Muslim communities and other vulnerable religious minority groups for spreading the virus, as well as the targeting of those who hold no religious beliefs.”
Yet this important and timely international warning did not slow down or stop California state officials who, in federal court filings, continued to repeatedly scapegoat and demonize places of worship as virus “super-spreaders.” This was their epically-specious legal excuse for treating places of worship much more harshly compared with secular places where people were permitted to more freely gather during the pandemic.
This scientifically and factually baseless argument posited that places of worship somehow always posed a greater inherent risk of virus spread than secular locations deemed “essential” and kept open—even if the places of worship carefully followed CDC-recommended precautions. This obvious myth was not based on peer-reviewed scientific studies, but was solely based on a few anecdotal stories of outbreaks early in the pandemic before precautions were followed, as well as pseudo-scientific speculation and innuendo based on how COVID-19 spreads.
Not until the US Supreme Court ruled in favor of closed churches and synagogues on November 25, 2020 in Brooklyn Diocese v. Cuomo did the tide begin to change. Fortunately, the Government’s unscientific “super-spreader” myth epically failed and was ultimately ignored and rejected by a majority of the US Supreme Court (in multiple rulings) as a baseless excuse for targeting places of worship for government-sanctioned discrimination.
Finally, in April 2021 the last holdout anti-church state, California, waived the white flag, removing its mandatory capacity limits and indoor religious singing and chanting ban. Governor Newsom agreed to statewide permanent injunctions against his sweeping restrictions on places of worship, paying out millions in dollars in attorney’s fees to dismiss civil rights lawsuits. But the damage had already been done. The collateral damage to people of faith and places of worship is significant and is still being calculated. It may take many years to understand the full impact of foolish public health policies.
Damage to religious individuals has been significant. Believers struggling with anxiety, depression and hopelessness during the pandemic were physically and emotionally cut off from their faithful community and spiritual support systems.
Isolation often leads to individual despair, even among the religiously faithful. Those needing counseling, encouragement, and prayer couldn’t access other believers and religious leaders. Pastors report seeing more suicides, drug overdoses, and deaths of despair. As Johns Hopkins notes, participation in religious communities is associated with lower suicide rates. The closure of churches contributed to social isolation and possible higher suicide rates.
One silver lining of the pandemic may turn out to be personal faith. Overall, 19 percent of Americans interviewed between March 28 and April 1, 2020 said their faith or spirituality has gotten better as a result of the crisis, while three percent say it has gotten worse, for a net of +16 percentage points.
In another study, four percent reported that the pandemic has weakened their faith, while 25 percent report their faith is stronger. However, very few people who were not particularly religious to begin with say they have become more religious because of the Coronavirus outbreak.
Although individuals may be faring better, the profound damage to religious institutions is also quite remarkable. Charitable giving at many places of worship dropped precipitously during the pandemic. Many churches took government PPE funds to help weather the financial storm, but those funds only lasted for so long.
A significant number of places of worship divided and some split over how to best faithfully respond to the pandemic. Some that have reopened have seen a 50 percent or more decline in attendance and charitable giving as people found it more comfortable and convenient to participate digitally, rather than gathering in-person.
As of March 2021, Pew Research said that past regular attenders at places of worship reported that 17 percent of their churches remained closed and only 12 percent reported their churches were operating as usual.
Only 58 percent were attending religious services in-person and 65 percent were still participating online. Before the pandemic in 2019, more churches closed than opened in the United States (4,500 vs. 3,000) because of shrinking church membership, representing a 1.4 percent decline. Those numbers are expected to accelerate and double or triple in the wake of the pandemic. Some places of worship that closed early in the pandemic will never reopen.
Early in the pandemic, I compared the government’s virus response to trying to kill a mosquito with a sledgehammer. Even if you kill the mosquito (which they have not done), the collateral damage caused by your overbroad and clumsy blows does more damage than the mosquito ever would. I believe history has and will vindicate that judgment.
Undoubtedly, it will likely take years to arrive at accurate conclusions regarding the long-term impacts the government’s overreaching pandemic response has had on religious individuals and institutions.
We can even now affirm some important basic truths and lessons. First, religion is essential for millions of Americans. Second, in-person religious worship is much better and is much more spiritually effective than is virtual worship. Third, we must never allow fundamental constitutional rights, including religious freedom, to be suspended by a virus. Fourth, public health considerations must take into account the positive dynamics of religion and must always respect religious freedom. Fifth, public health decisions must always carefully take into account the collateral damage of its policies, including on religious institutions and people of faith.
Finally, because increased power tends toward corruption and tyranny, if we are to remain a free people, we need to be very careful about the amount of authority we cede to government officials and “experts,” who presumably know what is best for us.