“Go different routes.” “Don’t tell anybody.” “Be as discreet as possible.” “Don’t wear bright clothes.” “Just tell them that you’re going to see a friend.” “Don’t ask for directions.” “Knock five times on the door.” Stay quiet.” “Close the curtains.” “Don’t turn the lights on.” “Light the candle.” “Only one person speaks at a time.” “Our lives are at stake.” “Don’t leave together.” “We will leave one at a time every thirty minutes.” ” Don’t turn around.”
The entire experience was more than surreal.
China outlaws religious movements that it finds disagreeable. In fact, the Chinese government would argue that these “unlawful assemblies” are a “threat to public health.” The extended quotes are from my time with a secret house church there many years ago. I will never forget multiple members of the core families telling us about how they’d spent extended time in prison for simply going to church. In every case, the charges were the same, “unlawful assembly” and “threat to public health.” In recent days, I have found my soul festering in those moments.
For the first time, the government has told me that I cannot freely go to church. While prevention of COVID-19 is certainly a legitimate concern, one has to wonder where this is going. Tinkering with religious liberty is always a very dangerous game.
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.
We do not live in China. Our government is required to use the least restrictive means necessary during times of emergency. We are not experiencing the least restrictive constraints with regards to religious liberty.
So what other civil liberties are up for unlimited restriction?
Are we prepared to sacrifice a free press next?
I hope not.
I hope that people realize that religious liberty is fundamental to maintaining all of our other liberties.
*As always, the word “church” includes all religious institutions for me.