Pew Research has published a map of the U.S., and some other data, showing which states allow religious exemptions from laws prohibiting congregating during the pandemic. Click on the screenshot to go to the article:
The map of the exemptions is below, showing that only ten states ban all in-person religious gatherings: Washington, California, Montana, Idaho, Alaska, Minnesota, Illinois, New York, Vermont, and New Jersey. In contrast, 15 states have NO restrictions on size of religious gatherings: Utah, Arizona, Colorado, North Dakota, South Dakota, Texas, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, Tennessee, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia. The other states, shown on the map, have limits of fewer than ten congregants or are limited in other ways:
As the article notes, California, one of the “no religious gathering” states, is being sued by a group of churches—predictably, on the grounds that their First Amendment Rights are being abrogated. Here are some of the “limited gathering” states:
Twenty-two states and the District of Columbia have specified in their orders that religious gatherings can take place, but only if they are limited to 10 people or fewer. This includes Rhode Island, where gatherings are limited to no more than five people. Two additional states, Connecticut and Oregon, limit religious gatherings to 50 and 25 people, respectively. Kentucky, meanwhile, is prohibiting “mass gatherings” – including faith-based ones – but does not specify how many people constitute a mass gathering. (This analysis only examines state-level regulations as of April 24 and does not reflect changes in regulations after this date.)
When you consider the “First Amendment” defense, though, you have to realize that prohibiting gatherings in this situation is different from prohibiting gatherings at other times, for the religious people who congregate then go out into wider society and can infect other people (not to mention their kids, who have no choice). And when religious worship endangers the greater society, then there’s no “right” to have it, especially when you can worship “virtually”.
Nevertheless, some religionists are defying the sanctions, as you’d expect. As The Hill reports, a pastor in Louisiana, who was already under house arrest for holding prohibited gatherings, was rearrested after leaving his home and preaching to his church. I expect this will become more and more common, especially in the hyperreligious South.
Frankly, I’m surprised that 15 states allow unlimited church gatherings given the possible consequences for nonbelievers, or adherents to other faiths, of a further spread of the virus. Most states already prohibit parents from using “faith healing” on seriously ill children, and those are just family members. Allowing people to contract a virus in church and then spread it to their community as a whole could be construed as even less justifiable than using faith-healing on your kids—though I think it should always be a crime to withhold scientific medicine from sick children on religious grounds.
Oh, and it’s not just Christians who violate the orders, either. This happened yesterday in New York: