Loving the Least in a Time of Pandemic : On Religious Liberty & the Social Services of Churches
*As always, the word “church” includes all religious institutions for me.
Though I find the political views of both Governor Abbott and Attorney General Paxton to most often be detestable, I have worked very hard and am very thankful for their recent order and interpretation declaring churches to be an essential service/business. Though they probably didn’t consider it this way, they are going to save the lives of countless marginalized and oppressed people by putting the social services of churches unquestionably back in business.
“In accordance with guidance from DSHS Commissioner Dr. Hellerstedt, and to achieve the goals established by the President to reduce the spread of COVD-19, every person in Texas shall, except where necessary to provide or obtain essential services, minimize social gatherings and minimize in-person contact with people who are not in the same household. ‘Essential services’ shall consist of everything listed by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security in its Guidance on the Essential Critical Infrastructure Workforce, Version 2.0, plus religious services conducted in churches, congregations, and houses of worship.”
-Texas Governor Greg Abbott, Executive Order GA-14
“This guidance provides clear direction for houses of worship to protect the health and safety of Texans as they continue to hold religious services, exercise their religious liberty, and serve their faith communities”
“The CDC currently recommends that if a community is experiencing substantial community spread of COVID-19, then the houses of worship in that community should cancel all in-person gatherings of any size.”
“A church may hold Easter services in its parking lot, with attendees remaining in their cars (windows down), parked in every other parking spot, with the minister using amplification to preach…Or because Executive Order GA 14 permits drive-thrus to operate, then a house of worship may, according to their faith practices, provide communion or a blessing through a similar drive-up service. Or pastors with smaller congregations may consider conducting multiple services of 10 people or fewer in their sanctuaries, so long as they maintain appropriate social distancing, properly sanitize the building between each service, and provide hand sanitizer.”
“Under the extraordinary circumstances in which we temporarily live, these restrictions do not violate the religious liberty of houses of worship because the government has a compelling interest for implementing the rules(stopping contagion) and the rules are the least restrictive means of burdening religious practice (they allow houses of worship to stay open for ministry, but suggest ways that help stop the spread of COVID-19).”
-Texas Governor Greg Abbott / Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton Joint Interpretation of Executive Order GA-14
For the past few weeks, I have been constantly engaged in the struggle to open churches back up. I have called/messaged whoever would listen. Repeatedly, those I spoke to had failed to consider the social impact that churches have on marginalized and oppressed people. Social services rather than church services have always been my primary concern…but you can’t talk about one without the other.
“It doesn’t have to be like this. Resurrection is possible. The questions are calling us out of our graves. How much are we willing to sacrifice for justice? How much are we willing to sacrifice to save the lives of others? The brutalities are not going to stop…unless we stop them. Now more than ever, the world needs advocates. Come back! Get creative! We cannot let the Coronavirus/death win.”
-J. Hood, Patheos, 3/19/20
“Our ethics will determine if all lives are valued in a time of COVID-19.”
“The world is not ending…unless we destroy it.”
-J. Hood, Patheos, 3/21/20
“I CALL FOR CIVIL DISOBEDIENCE. Religious leaders should invite their congregations to carefully continue performing their essential social role in our society. To do anything else…is to lose who we are/who we are called to be…lovers of our neighbors.”
-J. Hood, Patheos, 3/23/20
At least one Dallas-area activist would like to see more people rebel against what he described as an unconstitutional overreach by the government.
“Make no mistake, these restrictions are very dangerous … and, I believe, unconstitutional,” the Rev. Jeff Hood wrote in a news release to Dallas media.
Religious leaders ought to have the choice to open their doors to the sick, said Hood, a Baptist pastor and author.
Hood told The News that while public worship is important, “I’m most concerned about the church being there for those who are being overlooked in this pandemic.”
He doesn’t want the government to shut down the ability of churches to help people in need.
“If a person in need knocks on the church door, should it be illegal for a person of faith to open the door and help that person?” Hood asked. “How is it helpful for the government to restrict those things?”
-Dave Tarrant, Dallas Morning News, 3/26/20
“The church is the largest provider of social services in our country. Dallas County and various other counties have criminalized such work. Repeatedly, churches and their ministers are not included as essential to our society. The language is all about businesses. While there is room given for churches to meet “virtually,” churches can’t do the vast majority of their work over a computer screen. More lives will be lost if the church stops being the church. I can’t accept this. We must love our neighbors. We must stand up for the marginalized and oppressed. We must. To do anything else would to not be the church. When someone asks for the help of churches, I encourage you to help them…no matter what any authority says. Civil disobedience might be the hallmark of our faith at this point.”
-J. Hood, OpEd, 3/30/20
Denton County Judge Andy Eads.
As a citizen of Denton County, I am writing to ask you to cease and desist use of part of your COVID-19 emergency declaration.
Definition/section 2.b.VI, “Providers of Basic Necessities to Lower Income Populations” you define such entities as “Businesses, including non-profit organizations that provide food, shelter, and social services, and other necessities of life for economically disadvantaged or otherwise needy individuals.”
The problem with this definition/section is that it criminalizes the social services that churches (religious institutions broadly) provide everyday (food pantries, economic assistance and all sorts of emergency matters that churches assist needy persons with). Churches are not businesses. Churches are not non-profits. Churches are something else entirely. While I am sure such a mistake was a simple omission, the language as it stands now criminalizes the social service work of churches…
-J. Hood, Letter to Denton County Commissioners Court, 3/30/20
“The Rev. Jeff Hood, a Baptist pastor and author, said he believed it was an unconstitutional overreach by the government to shut down religious institutions.”
“But he said on Thursday that he still wants faith leaders to be responsible and halt mass gatherings.”
-Hayat Norimine, Dallas Morning News, 4/2/20
“Just a few days ago, Pastor Rodney Howard-Browne convened his Tampa, Florida megachurch in direct violation of local COVID-19 orders. Not long thereafter, Pastor Howard-Browne was arrested for “unlawful assembly” and “threat to public health.” There are stories of government enforcement trickling out of different places as well. Full disclosure, I think it is reckless for churches to meet right now (unless done under the strictest adherence to CDC guidelines). You cannot love your neighbor and expose them to a deadly virus. With that said, I am sickened by this spectacle of arresting pastors…or anyone else gathered for church. I see it as completely unnecessary. Government can and should set guidelines (social distancing for example) as to how to push back against this virus…but government should never constrict churches that can/do hold their services within these guidelines. Unlimited restrictions are a violation of religious liberty.”
J. Hood, Patheos, 4/2/20
After weeks of work, Texas is now in a place of the least restriction possible (as far as religious liberty is concerned). Now, the question shifts back to the role of persons of faith in loving their neighbors. Remember…just because it is legal don’t mean that it is love. Except in the most extreme of circumstances, churches should not be holding services. Let me make this perfectly clear. Except in the most extreme of circumstances, churches should not be holding services. With that said, the hearts and doors of churches should be safely and creatively open to loving the marginalized and oppressed of these moments. Now that the law is right, every inch of your heart/soul should be right…firmly extended in the direction of love. There is no other way to follow Jesus.