The response to the coronavirus pandemic by many national and state leaders upsets me. However, the struggle in Kansas politics over Gov. Kelly’s limits on church gatherings bewilders me. A warning about meeting in large groups, of course, is proper when health experts and evidence show that such gatherings have consistently yielded a multitude of sick people and many deaths.
A warning about church gatherings is not necessarily an attack on the constitutional right to exercise religion. The first amendment of the U.S. Constitution guarantees us the right to practice our individual religious beliefs. Free exercise of religion, however, does not mean allowing religious people to act in ways that place themselves and others in harm’s way. Now do not get me wrong here.
To me, churches provide essential services and perform crucial work. I do not, however, read the governor’s order as shutting down my church or denying me the right to exercise my faith.
In 1963, the U.S. Supreme Court, in Sherbert v. Verner, considered a case asking whether the state of South Carolina violated the Free Exercise Clause of the first amendment by denying unemployment benefits to a person for turning down a job which required working on the Sabbath. The Court ruled 7-2 that the statute did not impede a person’s right to freely exercise religion. In 1985, in Thornton v. Caldor, the court considered a Connecticut statute providing employees with the absolute and unqualified right not to work on their religion’s Sabbath. The court, 7-1, held that the statute violated the constitution because it effectively gave religious concerns automatic control over all secular interests and took no account of the rights or interests of employers and employees and had the primary effect of advancing a particular religious practice.
The court asks three questions in religious freedom questions: Does the policy or law have a clear and compelling secular purpose, does the law apply neutrally to religious and non-religious activity and is the law designed to persecute or oppress a particular religion or its practices.
Separation of church and state does not prevent the government from limiting church activities that are dangerous or harmful. Right now, gathering cheek to jowl is dangerous. Religious people usually share the values of family, charity, peace and respect for others. Fundamental to my faith is the aim to do no harm to others. Whether we wear Sunday clothes, yamika, kufi, hijabs or our jammies, I believe we have the same mission. Taking care of each other is an act of obedience to our faith.
Church gathering is important. The No.1 reason Christians are encouraged to find a church home is because the Bible instructs us to be in relationship with other believers. We have a need to come together to encourage one another as members of our faith and we work together to fulfill an important purpose in our community and on the earth. In Hebrews 10:25, Paul taught, “Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another …” But he also said in Hebrews 13:17, “Obey your leaders and submit to their authority. They keep watch over you as men who must give an account. Obey them so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of no advantage to you.”
I admit that Paul was not talking about the 2020 coronavirus pandemic. Paul’s early religious gatherings did not occur in church buildings. The political and religious authorities of his time were often persecuting his followers rather than trying to protect them. Paul’s early church did not have the benefit of electronics and media gatherings. But there were differences of opinion in the early churches just as there are today. Hopefully, our present differences are not based on politics and power struggles. Some believe that church gathering can be carried out safely; others choose to forego meeting in person but stay in communion in other ways. I can see both sides of the controversy. Are not we all are in agreement that this crisis is real? Because this pandemic is somewhat apocalyptic, people of faith have duties to serve each other and the world during the crisis. I hope we will learn some lessons that we can apply after the danger has abated.
When one of us is sick, or poor, or homeless, all of us are affected. Community and communication matters.
We ought to assure that those workers who do the truly important tasks are paid a living wage. Health care is not just a need, it is a right and we all have a duty as a community to provide care to each other. We thrive and overcome disaster by communicating openly and working together with love and respect for the least of us. Competition may have its place in the economy but cooperation is more important.
And when it is safe, let us all return with praise and thanksgiving to our church homes.
Marti Crow is a Leavenworth Times columnist.