Religious Freedom During COVID-19?

Religious Freedom During COVID-19? April 2, 2020

The COVID-19 pandemic is having a big impact on religious practices and religious communities all over the world (see a great Wikipedia summary here).

I’m hearing a lot of news about American churches and pastors openly flouting state requirements for social distancing, lockdowns, and the cessation of public gatherings.

The best example is South African-born Pentecostal prosperity preacher Rodney Howard-Browne who’s Florida Church openly flouted lockdown restrictions. Howard-Browne was subsequently arrested, read report at CNN.

Fox News reports that NY City Mayor Bill de Blasio has opined that, “A small number of religious communities, specific churches and specific synagogues are unfortunately not paying attention to this guidance even though it’s so widespread.” De Blasio threatened to close some congregations “permanently” as a result. Read his words below:

I don’t say that with any joy. It’s the last thing I would like to do because I understand how important people’s faiths are to them, and we need our faiths in this time of crisis, but we do not need gatherings that will endanger people. No faith tradition endorses anything that endangers the members of that faith. So, the NYPD, Fire Department, Buildings Department, everyone has been instructed that if they see worship services going on, they will go to the officials of that congregation, they’ll inform them they need to stop the services and disperse. If that does not happen, they will take additional action up to the point of fines and potentially closing the building permanently. Again, that will begin this weekend.

America is not the only country finding it difficult to get some dissident religious communities to comply with social distancing restrictions, countries like Indonesia are facing the same problem.

I’m not a lawyer (on account that I have a soul and a spine), but for the last few years I have been reading and writing about religious freedom, and I can say that according to the international standards of religious freedom, it is no violation of religious freedom to require faith communities to cease public meetings during a time of pandemic.

For example, according to article 18.3 of the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights, “Freedom to manifest one’s religion or beliefs may be subject only to such limitations as are prescribed by law and are necessary to protect public safety, order, health, and morals.” The limitation of any basic freedoms like religious liberty is controversial and must be proved to be necessary, the standards for proving are articulated in the Siracusa Principles for the limitation and derogation of human rights during a time of crisis.

What is move, showing contempt for your neighbors’s health and well-being by meeting in groups during this time is not a good look for Christians. Thus, it is a matter of civic duty, human solidarity, love of neighbor, and Good Samaritanism that compels Christians to observe social distancing for however long it needs. It is a time of disruption and anxiety, but it is also a time of lament, prayer, generosity, charity, creative community, and seeking the “welfare of the city”  (Jer 29:7 [RSV]).

Photo from wikimedia commons.



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