Religious exemptions for congregating during the pandemic

April 29, 2020 • 10:30 am

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:

h/t: Tom

54 thoughts on “Religious exemptions for congregating during the pandemic

  1. My mom’s church is doing Zoom meetings like everyone else. No impact to their worship.

    Of course, it’s a death cult that actively looks for ways to die, I guess.

  2. Perhaps those good christians need to remember a couple of verses from their holy book, Romans 13:1-2, “Obey the government, for God is the One who has put it there. There is no government anywhere that God has not placed in power. So those who refuse to obey the law of the land are refusing to obey God, and punishment will follow.”

    What a bunch of selfish asterisks!

    1. Something conservative religiosos should contemplate when they cavalierly speak of Trump being “God’s vessel,” by means of which to accomplish their political and governmental ends.

  3. This is a tricky one. The right to free practice of religion is very explicit in our founding documents. Though this conflicts with the rights of others to health and safetly, there is not, as far as I know, an explicit heirarchy of rights priorities written anywhere. It would be interesting to hear from a lawyer how these conflicts are normally resolved.

    1. It is potentially harmful to themselves and others to gather. I know of no exemptions for not wearing seatbelts or speeding for religions.

      The federal government should mandate no gatherings greater than five. Since that will not happen I am curious how this experiment will play out…probably not well for the gatherers.

      1. Of course it is potentially harmful to themselves and others, but so is practically anything. Diseases are always more easily transmitted in crowds. Without a definite threshhold, the government could always have argued that religious services should be prohibited because they potentially cause harm to the people involved and to others, even without the coronavirus. Yet the founding documents clearly state that this would not be acceptable. I don’t think this is so easy to decide, and I can easily imagine different judges weighing these conflicting rights differently.

      2. “I know of no exemptions for not wearing seatbelts or speeding for religions.”

        Not for those two things, but there are some obscure exemptions that are not far off. For example, Oregon has a mandatory bicycle helmet law for anyone under the age of 16, except…If wearing a helmet would violate a religious belief or practice of the person, a helmet is not required.

          1. Not wearing a seat belt is not likely to endanger others, either. Though both might be a cost to society when they end up in the emergency room.

    1. Wow, that is an enormous load of shite! She claims that the initial estimate of 100k – 250k death in the US was “faulty” and “overinflated”. Yet there are already over 60k deaths in spite of the lockdown. She is arguing against a lockdown that has so far held back the spread, and on current projections the original estimate of 100k deaths will still be reached.

      Ah, but the deaths are being deliberately over-notified, she says. Why? What about all the home deaths that have not been recorded?

      even expert Fauci’s best guess is about as good as Joe Neighbor’s best guess. So that leaves common sense, combined with knowledge of past viruses, to guide.


  4. Intimidation by religion on the rest of society is nearly everyday and all the time. Some of our tax money even goes directly to the religious now in total violation of the separation of church/state. Some religion has sued the governor of Kansas as well. As far as how dangerous all of this gathering is, the administration could care less. Yesterday he put out the order that all meat packing firms must stay open. You cannot get any worse than that.

    1. No one, absolutely no one knows when you pray in your closet. You get no goodness points for this sort of behavior!

  5. Biological virus versus mind virus. If it didn’t impact everyone else it would be nice to just sit back and keep score.

  6. First of all, the actions by the Hasidic Jew in NYC are unacceptable and must be stopped. However DeBlasio is just as guilty and is a hypocrite to boot:
    “The New York metro area blew off social distancing Tuesday, with hundreds packed shoulder to shoulder to catch a glimpse of the Blue Angels and Thunderbirds as they roared overhead in a tribute to coronavirus front-line workers.

    Photos from throughout the region show large crowds jammed together in waterfront parks and venues in New York and New Jersey, looking skyward for a glance at the famous jets.”

    1. Part of the reason NYC area became the epicenter of the pandemic was the major of NYC. He was not quite as bad as Trump but he was right up there.

  7. Dozens of lawsuits have been filed challenging restrictions on religious gatherings in, among others, Kansas, New Mexico, Florida, Mississippi, Kentucky, Virginia, California and Texas. And, of course, Trump’s hyper-religious AG, Bill Barr, is ready to support these poor benighted churches that are being prevented from passsing the collection plate. Two days ago he put out a memo to US Attorneys on “Balancing Public Safety with the Preservation of Civil Rights.”

    The emphasis, lest we forget:
    “even in times of emergency, when reasonable and temporary restrictions are placed on rights, the First Amendment and federal statutory law prohibit discrimination against religious institutions and religious believers.”

    1. I think that Barr should attend crowded church services at least twice a week, without a mask, and submit to much hand-shaking and hugging.

  8. I’m of a mind that, in a right-thinking world, religious freedom in these United States would be subsumed into a broader right of conscience and freedom of expression under the Free Speech clause of the First Amendment — and that there should be no exemptions to facially neutral laws that have been enacted without religious (or anti-religious) animus.

    That is not, however, how our First Amendment is written. Instead, it has a distinct “Free Exercise” clause that expressly applies only to religion. That clause must mean something (under the principle of legal construction that courts should not interpret any section of a written law as a nullity). And what the something is, is something that SCOTUS has struggled with, with inconsistent (bordering on incoherent) results, over the course of the life of this Republic.

    1. I think the current supreme court has handled the question of religion about the same way they handled the second amendment. With little skill and much bigotry.

    2. There must be a limitation to the free exercise of religion. If a religion practised child sacrifice, they wouldn’t get very far before they were stopped and I doubt if the Supreme Court would side with them.

      By holding church services, religions are endangering the lives of other people. I would think that is enough to outweigh their right to free practice. If the church leaders weren’t morally bankrupt, they would recognise this and cancel all their get togethers.

      The Church of England did that before the UK official lockdown began. In fact, they were concerned that people would gather together in their buildings anyway (churches are often left open even when services aren’t in progress) and ordered that that the churches should all be locked up until it was safe.

      1. The C of E is more a social institution than a religion and I guess they feel it incumbent upon them to act responsibly.

        And also, since they enjoy a certain establishment status, they don’t feel the need to aggressively demonstrate their rights and privileges in everybody’s face.

        (I think all the religious denominations here in NZ co-operated with our lockdown restrictions, since they all want to be seen as ‘good citizens’.)


  9. I’ve said it before, and will say it again, natural selection at work.

    On the other hand, I think there is a good case for saying that the government cannot restrict religious gatherings, and worshiping remotely doesn’t allow for things like Communion. At the same time, quarantine is directed at sick and exposed people, which is different than a general prohibition on gatherings. My father always used to quote Pitt: “Necessity is the plea for every infringement of human freedom. It is the argument of tyrants; it is the creed of slaves.”

    And that said, I think people who do not avoid public gatherings are stupid.

    1. ‘Natural selection’ within a religious community is all well and good.

      The problem is that the so-and-sos then mix with the rest of us.

  10. Faithists claim a right to worship in groups as a form of religious freedom. But those who attend large religious gatherings do pose a serious threat of contagion to the rest of society. Let me suggest a simple solution, based on adapting a venerable Medieval custom. Require those who attend large religious gatherings to wear a little bell at all times, in order to warn the rest of us whenever they are in our proximity.

  11. “Laws are made for the government of actions, and while they cannot interfere with mere religious beliefs and opinions, they may with practices. . . . . Can a man excuse his practices to the contrary because of his religious belief? To permit this would be to make the professed doctrines of religious belief superior to the law of the land, and in effect to permit every citizen to become a law unto himself. Government could exist only in name under such circumstances.” Reynolds v. United States

    1. There is difference between outlawing polygamy, as Reynolds did, and prohibiting religious gatherings. The court had popular prejudice on its side in 1879 (and probably would today), but no one can characterize religious assembly as uncommon or aberrant.

          1. Yes, communion could be outlawed – if it was a dangerous practice.

            How about: Human Sacrifice: Why the Aztecs Practiced This Gory Ritual
            In addition to slicing out the hearts of victims and spilling their blood on temple altars, the Aztecs likely also practiced a form of ritual cannibalism.

            1. I should be off reading something new, but some issues discussed on WEIT return to my thoughts again.

              Human sacrifice (and cannibalism) has been part of human cultures’ practices for many centuries, eons. Also, burying children under the door sill of ones’ house for good luck, burying family members under your house floor, throwing children into cenotes, mummifying people, burning people, erecting pyramids or other special structures over our most important citizens, having special holidays to celebrate the dead (or ward off vicious spirits), etc. Thank goodness, our laws don’t permit these religious practices any more. Plant and animal sacrifices have been with us a very long time also, but is a preferable practice to sacrificing people. And, the pretend cannibalism of the Catholic Church is better than real cannibalism.

              Unfortunately, there still are some oddball religious practitioners who mistreat and/or kill their worshippers. This should not be possible. I don’t want any religion to injure or kill human beings.

            1. Obviously. But you appeared to be arguing that there is a bright-line distinction between religious “belief” and religious “practice” for First Amendment purposes.

              I’m saying that distinction is not born out by what the courts have actually done.

              1. @Mark:

                Animal sacrifice is self-evidently a “practice” rather than a mere “belief.”

                I’m missing the point of your question. Care to elaborate?

  12. I had no idea that there is such diversity in state rules about church attendance during the pandemic. I have no objection to church services if congregants follow the state rules. If, however, they stuff too many in a meeting space, I think they should have to remain there for fourteen days at least and be tested before they can leave. If, any of them contract the virus. as do die, it’s Darwinian and appropriate. If they come out and infect others who die and it can be traced back to them, they should be tried for murder. It’s a daydream, I know.

  13. I was interested to read what your position on this was. To me, it seems like the first amendment is clearly written to imply that the government can’t do this!
    Of course, any reasonable person would see that your interpretation is more sensible. – But then this is religion, so reason or sense are not necessarily involved…
    Similarly I would argue that the second amendment was more about preventing the feds from disarming state militias than any individual right, so I’m not sure where the present courts will land on this one either.
    My hope is they’ll come up with some sort of exception; that this is a delay or alteration, but not a prohibition. Perhaps.

  14. Jeepers.

    One of the first super-spreader events was in early March was at a church choir meeting in Washington State. It was fully investigated by epidemiologists.

    Skagit County, Washington, Tuesday, March 10:

    Sixty singers showed up. A greeter offered hand sanitizer at the door, and members refrained from the usual hugs and handshakes. After 2½ hours, the singers parted ways at 9 p.m.

    Nearly three weeks later, 45 have been diagnosed with COVID-19 or are ill with the symptoms, at least three have been hospitalized, and two are dead.

    Washington has done fairly well so far reining in the breakouts, and have limited the spread. But holy crap, you can’t have a church meeting just because you feel like it:

    They Kill Other People. That Not Okay.

  15. Swell, here I sit in PA, the state that brought us Ben Franklin and James A Buchanan, which is blue on the map, but currently has a blue Gov with a brain. But it also a red Sen with no brain. PA is bipolar!

    At least, my mason, who is religious (but we have an unwritten agreement not to bother each other with our views in that regard and he is also quite interested in things biological including evolutionary aspects) is part of a group that has been meeting remotely since all of this started.

  16. California Emergency Orders Upheld Against Free Exercise Challenge

    In Gish v. Newsom , (April 23,2020), a California federal district court refused to issue a temporary restraining order against state-wide and county-wide COVID-19 Orders in a suit brought by a group of pastors in the Inland Empire region of southern California.

    The court said in part:
    “When responding to the COVID-19 pandemic … Defendants “may implement emergency measures that curtail constitutional rights so long as the measures have at least some ‘real or substantial relation’ to the public health crisis and are not ‘beyond all question, a plain, palpable invasion of rights secured by the fundamental law.’…”

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