A panel of experts for the taxpayer-subsidized National Public Radio (NPR) recently rated “The Risks of 14 Summer Activities” they say Americans face due to COVID-19. While evaluating everything from a “BYOB backyard gathering with one other household” to “using a public restroom,” NPR advances an anti-religious trope that was put to rest recently by a panel of federal judges.
One of just two “high risk” activities in the minds of the NPR experts is “attending a religious service indoors.” Night clubs are the other, filled with “ultra-close contact, singing, sweating and inhibition-loosening alcohol.” But prolonged visits to shopping malls or restaurants and lengthy stays in a public hotel, suggests NPR, bear less risk than attending religious meetings for the security of one’s soul.
Of course, no self-respecting Baptist church service will feature “inhibition-loosening alcohol” and neither Lutherans, nor Presbyterians are known for their “ultra-close contact, singing, [or] sweating” as is popular in nightclubs. It is, the experts suggest, “people from different households coming together indoors for an extended time” in a religious setting that elevates the risk.
Extended time? The average visit to the grocery store is nearly as long as many religious services in America.
Regardless, this is old news to state officials who, advancing the same arguments, recently shut down whole economies and suppressed the civil rights of Americans for months—some still do. And, while many restrictions on local economies are beginning to lift, the overbearing limitations on civil rights protected by the First Amendment often seem to be the last to be reversed.
For instance, Howard County, Md. recently allowed indoor retail businesses to function at 50 percent capacity, but limited indoor religious gatherings to 10 or fewer people. Worse, Howard County banned any “food or beverage that would typically be consumed as part of a religious service.” The county quickly made revisions to the order, but think about it: cheeseburger and fries served from the hands of a masked teenager was fine; Holy Communion administered by a priest was forbidden.
A recent per curiam opinion by a panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit lays the anti-religious bias of public officials and NPR’s experts bare. In invalidating Kentucky’s ban on in-person religious gatherings, the Sixth Circuit noted that the state allowed “law firms, laundromats, liquor stores, gun shops, airlines, mining operations, funeral homes, and landscaping businesses to continue to operate so long as they follow social-distancing and other health-related precautions.”
Before the court stepped in, Kentucky officials had claimed religious organizations could not be trusted to operate. Secular Americans shopping at liquor stores or gun shops were viewed by the state as capable of doing so safely. But, not religious Kentuckians.
The judges of the Sixth Circuit pointed out the illogic:
"Aren’t the two groups of people often the same people—going to work on one day and going to worship on another? How can the same person be trusted to comply with social-distancing and other health guidelines in secular settings but not be trusted to do the same in religious settings? The distinction defies explanation, or at least the Governor has not provided one."
NPR’s experts join the ranks of those who uncritically promote the insidious notion that religious people are lesser: less safe, less healthy, less capable of following social distancing guidelines, less trusted, less wise, and less human than their secular neighbors.
That must end. If we are all in this together, then what is right for the secular shopper must be available to the religious adherent. That is the least we should expect in a country whose Constitution explicitly protects the free exercise of religion, free speech, and the right peaceably to assemble and is silent as to shopping and dining.
Unequal treatment of religious communities should always be opposed—even in the time of a pandemic.
Jeremy Dys (@JeremyDys) is Special Counsel for Litigation and Communications for First Liberty Institute, a non-profit law firm dedicated to defending religious freedom for all Americans. Read more at FirstLiberty.org.