Unintended Consequences? Losing Religious Freedoms During COVID-19

by Steve Golden

Life has changed rapidly as stay-at-home orders have swept the nation, and no one has been unaffected. As these orders first appeared, Americans got behind them to “flatten the curve,” even as extension after extension has been announced, with one state governor pre-emptively pushing the expiration date on his state’s stay-home order into June. Beyond the debates over whether the government took the right approach to fighting this pandemic, what’s most striking is how quickly state governments and law enforcement crossed the line and began targeting churches and Christian ministries under these broad and sweeping orders.

Here’s a sampling of stories from the past week:

  • David Benham, who formerly hosted an HGTV reality show and now runs Cities4Life (a pro-life ministry), was arrested along with several other pro-life counselors for being outside an abortion clinic, despite following North Carolina’s stay-at-home order. As The Federalist reported, “The order allows for outdoor activity with social distancing and for volunteering with charitable and social services. This group was doing both of these things, and have thus sued the city over the arrests.” These arrests occurred while people in a nearby park gathered for recreation and while the abortion clinic performed elective abortions.
  • Pro-life group Love Life in Greensboro, North Carolina, posted a video of several of their counselors being arrested by an unnecessarily aggressive police officer, despite following stay-at-home order guidelines. World reported that the arrests continued at the facility two days later.
  • World also reported citations were given to individuals walking, praying, and preaching outside abortion facilities.
  • Kentucky governor Andy Beshear announced that law enforcement would be patrolling the parking lots of churches that held services on Easter, writing down license plate numbers and forcing those residents to self-quarantine for 14 days. The same is not happening to people gathered at grocery stores or other businesses deemed by government to be “essential.”
  • In a clear case of discrimination, police issued $500 tickets to attendees of a drive-in church service in Mississippi last week, despite congregants staying in their cars with windows rolled up. Mississippi still allows residents to use parking lots at essential business, including rolling down windows and getting out of cars—it was only churches that were singled out for this treatment.*
  • Kansas governor Laura Kelly successfully sued and won her bid to make religious gatherings and funerals of more than 10 people a class A misdemeanor, carrying a fine of up to $2500.00 and up to a year in prison for violating her executive order. Governor Kelly’s order was directed specifically at churches and came after her initial stay-home order and after the vast majority of churches in Kansas had already complied, despite an initial exemption.
  • A Florida pastor, whose case has been taken by Liberty Counsel, was charged with two misdemeanors after holding services at his church, where family groups were required to stand 6 feet apart, hand sanitizer was distributed, staff wore gloves, and a $100,000 air purifier was in use.

These and other cases have been taken up by religious liberty defense firms and are being litigated in the courts. The nation has seen the loss of privacy and freedoms on a large scale over the last month, as FoxNews outlined in a piece over the weekend. But the rapid rate at which churches and individual Christians are having their constitutional rights “suspended” and their religious liberty revoked in the name of public safety is sobering. Moreover, the sweeping declarations by state governments that churches and Christian ministries are “non-essential”—and the subsequent shuttering of their doors—raises legitimate questions about the vagueness and inadequacy of terms like essential and non-essential and about who gets to decide what’s non-essential.

As Christians, we should applaud the courage of fellow believers who—respectfully and wisely—stand up to the abuse of these stay-at-home orders for the sake of the Gospel and of religious freedom in our nation. Let’s prayerfully and financially support our brothers and sisters in Christ who take the citations, fines, and even jail time in order to have these issues brought to light and their cases litigated in court. We should also support the religious freedom organizations representing them.

Mike, one of this blog’s contributors, published a call to action on religious liberty in 2013, as Obamacare threatened the freedom of Christian businesses like Hobby Lobby—but it’s just as appropriate for today.

The nation again needs a liberty-at-any-price kind of conviction and resolve.  It’s time for people of faith and those who believe in the necessary limitations of government to take a stand. It’s time for political action. It’s time for peaceful protest and civil disobedience. It’s time to pray.

From “Cold War Courage ”; read Mike’s other blog post “Despotic Government” for more on American history and religious liberty

The authors of this blog have followed presidential guidance and encouraged others to do the same, and I believe the COVID-19 pandemic is only a shadow of things to come. But Christians in the near future may very well be faced with choices that require civil disobedience. Now is the time for believers to reflect on how they might handle these situations. Take time to read Henry David Thoreau’s essay On the Duty of Civil Disobedience (knowing that we won’t agree with all his conclusions) and to wrestle with the difficult questions: How much government overreach and infringement should the church tolerate before contemplating civil disobedience? How would you respond when told by law enforcement that your religious freedoms have been “suspended”? Are you willing to bear the cost of disobeying to stand up for religious liberty and follow Christ’s commands?  

Christ said that, leading up to the Rapture and His Second Coming, trials and tribulation will only increase (Luke 21:8–11). So we are not perplexed by government overreach and loss of religious liberties, and we don’t spend our time engaged in worry and fear (2 Corinthians 4:8–12; 1 Peter 4:12–16). Instead, let’s pray to be sober-minded, prepared to thoughtfully and peacefully engage government officials on religious liberty issues, and fortified with the courage to stand up for religious freedom no matter the cost.

 *In an encouraging turn, a Kentucky church sued the mayor of Louisville after he banned drive-in church services. A federal court judge ruled in favor of the church, saying the ban “criminalized” church attendance. Oral arguments are scheduled for April 14.

**Image: Officers in North Carolina arrest David Benham outside abortion clinic

One thought on “Unintended Consequences? Losing Religious Freedoms During COVID-19

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  1. As much as this article alarms me; it also brings to mind the “Fear of the Lord.” He is the only one to fear. Let us fear Him and gain His much needed wisdom for our times that are in HIS Hand. Thank you.

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