Religious Freedom Lessons from COVID-19 Disputes

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Understanding the legal issues at play can help the church if government restrictions return with another pandemic spike.

After almost three months of COVID-19-related closures, thousands of congregations of all faiths can gather again in person because state or local orders have expired or relaxed. The situation is complex. Congregations still face restrictions like size limits or social distancing rules; in some places, the restrictions remain severe. Out of safety concerns, many congregations that are free to gather will stay online.

And a surge in cases in some places is causing communities to rethink their plans.

Restrictions on in-person worship have been divisive in the general public and within congregations. Those challenging the restrictions have often accused the government of devaluing religious practice. The challengers have often been accused of ignoring the common good.

While many churches are free to resume their gatherings, the questions and disputes around government restrictions during a pandemic remain. As a legal scholar and religious liberty advocate (Thomas Berg) and a law student and church leader (Shawna Kosel), we believe examining the legal principles and convictions at play will help us extend grace to those on both sides of the latest religious freedom disputes. It’ll also provide a better understanding if the virus spikes again and strict restrictions on worship return.

Religious Freedom Considerations

In their early weeks, state orders prohibiting worship were relatively strict across the board, prohibiting a wide range of in-person activities. But as states began to open up, they allowed more activities like in-restaurant dining and “personal services” (hair salons, tattoo parlors, and barbershops). Both of those bring people into close proximity for extended time periods, two of the significant …

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