April 8, 2020 – Americans United for Separation of Church and State praised faith communities that are protecting public health by halting in-person worship services during the COVID-19 pandemic, and urged government officials to follow the guidance of public health experts and not exempt religious services from temporary bans against gatherings of large groups of people.
In particular, Americans United called on the governors and public health officials of Arkansas, Kansas, Michigan and New Mexico to stop exempting worship services and other religious gatherings from their executive orders that prohibit the public from gathering in large groups. These religious exemptions not only pose a significant risk to the public health, but they violate the Constitution’s promise of church-state separation, which demands that religious and secular gatherings be treated equally.
“We recognize that many people find solace in attending religious services, especially during uncertain times such as these, and thus share in the deep sorrow that the already challenging coronavirus situation also means temporarily halting in-person religious services,” said Rachel Laser, president and CEO of Americans United. “But when health experts and public officials determine that large gatherings must be cancelled for the public good, we must follow their lead and apply these guidelines to secular and religious gatherings equally. The Constitution not only permits it, but demands it. Such restrictions do not violate religious freedom; they ensure religious freedom is not misused in ways that risk people’s lives.
“We applaud the faith communities that are finding creative ways to worship together online or by broadcast, and we hope that people will find comfort by participating in these virtual services. We may be physically apart, but we will get through this public health crisis together – even if it’s together in new ways.”
Americans United’s letters to Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly, Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and New Mexico Dept. of Health Secretary Kathyleen Kunkel detail why exempting religious gatherings from their executive orders are detrimental to the public health and unconstitutional:
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- COVID-19 is just as likely to spread at houses of worship as at other places of mass gathering. In fact, houses of worship have been directly linked to the spread of the virus in Georgia, Kentucky, New York and elsewhere.
- More than a century of legal precedent makes clear that the government has the authority to protect the public health through measures such as mandating vaccinations, even when some people have religious objections. A New Hampshire judge just last week allowed the governor’s ban on gatherings of more than 50 people to remain in place, despite a religious objection.
- The First Amendment of the U.S Constitution prohibits the government from granting religious exemptions that would harm others or put people’s lives at risk.
Americans United is a religious liberty watchdog group based in Washington, D.C. Founded in 1947, the organization educates Americans about the importance of church-state separation in safeguarding religious freedom.