The governor of Texas has mandated mask wearing when schools reopen for in-person instruction this fall. However, the attorney general has issued a letter stating that private religious schools will be exempt from this requirement. Does the Texas GOP think religious schools have some sort of anti-COVID mojo that public schools don’t?
Oh, but it gets better—while the governor issued a mask mandate for all of Texas earlier this month, he exempted houses of worship. You can’t go into a grocery store in Texas without a mask, but you can go into a church without a mask. The bizarre part of it is that the risk of transmission is far higher in a church—where you spend longer amounts of time near individual people—than it is in a grocery store, with or without masks.
All of this came to mind as I read the increasingly shrill assertions on the Right that Joe Biden would ban religion if elected, and that Toronto’s communion ban is some sort of anti-religion test case. Except that Toronto didn’t ban communion. And Joe Biden is a practicing Catholic. These conspiracy theories—championed by the likes of Laura Ingraham and our own president—make literally no sense. (I know, what else is new?)
First, I give you Laura Ingraham:
You will find it completely unsurprising, given the source (“big league politics”), that this is not in fact what happened. What actually happened? The Ontario Ministry of Health (Toronto is in Canada) issued recommendations that churches consider suspending activities like communion and the sharing of hymnals; the archdiocese of Toronto announced that they would temporarily deliver communion only “in the hand” and not “in the tongue”; and, finally, crucially, a video by a Greek Orthodox priest falsely telling his congregation that he was not allowed to administer the Eucharist went viral.
In fact, Ingraham’s tweet was such a transparent lie that even she, queen of misinformation, later deleted it. This sort of thing could be blamed on a fringe Right engaging in conspiracy theory and persecution-mongering if it weren’t also coming from the very center of the GOP—the president of the United States and his cronies.
When asked what would happen if Biden was elected, in an interview with Chris Wallace yesterday, Trump said the following:
TRUMP: Religion will be gone…
WALLACE: … When you say religion is gonna be gone, what does that mean?
TRUMP: Look at what they’re doing to the churches! They won’t let the churches even open if they want to stand in a field six feet apart. We’ve had churches that wanted to stand in fields six feet apart.
Trump appears to be referencing bans on in-person gatherings in April, during the lockdown implemented across the country. You remember, the lockdown whose efforts he wasted by failing to create a cohesive national strategy for combatting the virus longterm. The lockdown whose efforts he wasted by urging states to reopen prematurely, in violation of the guidance released by his own health officials. During that lockdown, bans on public gatherings were rather draconian—for a reason. And it’s not like churches were singled out! They weren’t! All in-person gatherings were barred.
But I remember something else, and here I want to bring things back to where I started—back to Texas officials exempting churches and religious schools from following mask mandates deemed necessary to protect public health.
Remember when Trump got angry that the CDC recommended churches consider replacing singing with other activities, so he forced the CDC to release new guidelines eliminating that recommendation? Because I remember that.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has removed guidance on its website that houses of worship should limit choir activities — advice that was based on evidence that group singing can spread the coronavirus that causes COVID-19.
The warning was part of new guidance for leaders of faith-based organizations that the CDC had posted last Friday. It stated that they should:
“Consider suspending or at least decreasing use of a choir/musical ensembles and congregant singing, chanting, or reciting during services or other programming, if appropriate within the faith tradition. The act of singing may contribute to transmission of COVID-19, possibly through emission of aerosols.”
But that wording disappeared over the weekend, apparently because the White House had not approved it. The passage was deleted because it had been published by mistake, according to a federal official, who didn’t want to be identified because they were not authorized to speak about the changes.
“CDC posted the wrong version of the guidance,” the official told NPR, adding, “The version that is currently up on the website is the version cleared by the White House.”
Like the guidance in Ontario, these recommendations were voluntary. Churches are not run by public health officials. Just like everyone else, churches need guidance from public health authorities on what activities are and are not safe. The guidance on singing is crucially important; it is well attested that singing—in which people project and spread germs across the room—can lead to super spreader events (this happened in Washington in March, when nearly all members of a church choir caught it and several died).
So. Here’s what we have:
— A governor exempts churches and religious schools from following public health mandates that epidemiologists say are crucially important to keeping people safe, giving these bodies the go-ahead to endanger their members.
— A president forces public health officials eliminate important provisions from their science-based guidelines for churches, leaving religious leaders with less information on how to effectively keep their congregants safe.
In which world are either of these things pro-religion? What sort of upside down world do we live in where trying to keep attendees at religious houses of worship safe is an infringement on religious freedom—where letting religious leaders endanger their members (willfully or through ignorance) is the position friendly to religion?
If the governor of Texas cared about religious believers, he would mandate masks in houses of worship. The science is clear on the role churches can play as super spreaders. Wearing a mask is a simple step, and it keeps people safer. If Trump cared about religious believers, he would want to ensure that pastors know that singing carries with it a high risk of transmission. He would not want to hide that information from them.
The true risk to religious believers is not the Left, for all of Laura Ingraham and Trump’s hand-wringing. It’s the GOP. Religion wouldn’t be gone, if Biden wins, but religious believers would be safer—and, I would argue, more respected. (I would argue that hiding information about public health risks from religious leaders is the height of disrespect.)
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