Obeying God Rather than Men? A Constitutional Scholar on What’s Really a Religious Liberty Issue


John Inazu on religious liberty and loving one other during the pandemic.

Ed: How should we be thinking about restrictions on worship during the pandemic?

John: The details of restrictions will vary by locality and by our understanding of the virus and how it spreads. But as Christians, we should frame our assessments of restrictions within a broader ethic of love of God and love of neighbor.

To be sure, gathering for worship is a core Christian practice: the early church was known as the ecclesia (assembly), many Christian practices depend upon community, and the writer of Hebrews admonishes us not to give up meeting together (Hebrews 10:25). Limits on religious worship are serious matters for Christians.

At the same time, Christians through the ages have adjusted corporate gatherings in challenging circumstances. For centuries, missionaries, soldiers, and relief workers have improvised worship practices and forgone physical gatherings in extraordinary times. Today, churches in China and Iran do not often gather openly, but they are no less faithful to the Gospel because of their inability to do so.

Christians are also called to love our neighbors and care for the most vulnerable among us. We can live out these commitments even in uncertain times and even with imperfect knowledge. The nature of this virus means that health experts and government officials are constantly making judgments based on limited data, and necessarily speaking about risks rather than certainties. So we won’t always know with complete confidence what the right decision should be. But if there is a reasonable risk that in-person gatherings or other activities will harm our neighbors, then that risk should weigh heavily in the decisions we make.

Ed: How do I know if a risk is reasonable?

John: For starters, if you have limited …

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