The Centers for Disease Control, Coronavirus, and the Importance of Religious Liberty

R. Albert Mohler, Jr.
May 22, 2020

According to recent headlines, there is friction between the Trump administration and the Centers for Disease Control. The issue between the two stems from whether or not the CDC would or should release procedures for religious organizations and religious worship as part of the comprehensive guidelines that assist Americans coming out of shelter-in-place orders.

Here is the big question: Is it the business of the Centers for Disease Control—or any other department, division, or government office—to determine how religious bodies ought to conduct their religious services and organize their religious lives?

The Washington Post ran an article covering this question with the headline, “Reopening guidance for churches delayed after White House and CDC disagree.” The reporters who wrote the article stated, “Guidance for reopening houses of worship amid the coronavirus pandemic has been put on hold after a battle between the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the White House, which was resistant to putting limits on religious institutions, according to administration officials. The CDC this week issued a detailed road map for reopening schools, child-care facilities, restaurants and mass transit. On Tuesday night, the agency issued additional guidance in the form of ‘health considerations’ for summer camps, including overnight camps, and youth sports organizations and colleges. But there are currently no plans to issue guidance for religious institutions, according to three administration officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss policy decisions.”

Anonymity is often used in journalism, especially when dealing with political issues. While the sources cited in this article wanted to remain anonymous, there is no national secrecy hiding the fact that the White House and the larger executive branch is seeking to protect religious liberty in the midst of this pandemic. Judd Deere, a spokesman for the White House, said, “All Americans want to see their churches safely open again. Not only is it good for the community, it’s their right under the Constitution to worship freely without government intrusion. The Trump administration will always protect that right and continue to partner with states to ensure congregations are properly protected as restrictions are responsibly eased.”

The attorney general of the United States, William Barr, echoes this strong statement from the White House. Indeed, Attorney General Barr and the Department of Justice have issued a warning to several states and their governors that they must not encroach upon the religious liberty of the citizens in their states with overly restrictive guidelines.

The Washington Post continues, “CDC draft guidance on houses of worship was the subject of much internal debate at the White House last month. Some aides did not want any guidance for religious institutions. Others thought recommendations were too restrictive. In the end, the decision to hold back reopening guidance for religious institutions came from some White House and coronavirus task force officials who did not want to alienate the faithful and believed that some of the proposals, such as limits on hymnals, the size of choirs or the passing of collection plates, were too restrictive, according to two administration officials.”

Draft guidelines for religious institutions contained restrictions on the sharing of prayer books, hymnals, and other worship materials. They suggested the use of stationary collection boxes, rather than passing the offering plate during the service. More controversially, there were guidelines that prohibited choirs.

This is part of a larger, national conversation that has only grown more intense and controversial during the COVID-19 pandemic—a story about religious liberty in a time of crisis.

On April 27, The Washington Post ran an article with the headline, “White House is reviewing expanded guidance on reopening society.” Two of the three reporters who wrote this week’s article wrote the article that came out last month. In the April article, the reporters stated that the White House already exerted pressure on the CDC to be particularly sensitive when it came to guidelines about religious observances. The article cited one administration official who said, “Churches don’t like being told how to operate. We are told there was a decision to say, ‘consider,’ in the guidelines, so we aren’t infringing. Churches aren’t going to want to give up hymnals or choirs or normal services.”

In recent days, The New York Times ran an article written by Abby Goodnough and Maggie Haberman with the headline, “White House rejects CDC’s coronavirus reopening plan.” The article reveals that The New York Times obtained a copy of the CDC guidance, which included at least draft language addressed to communities of faith. Then, the reporters state, “White House and other administration officials rejected the recommendations over concerns that they were overly prescriptive, infringed on religious rights, and risked further damaging an economy that Mr. Trump was banking on to recover quickly. One senior official at the Department of Health and Human Services with deep ties to religious conservatives objected to any controls on church services.”

That senior official was Roger Severino, who directs the Department of Health and Human Services Office for Civil Rights. He said, “Governments have a duty to instruct the public on how to stay safe during this crisis and can absolutely do so without dictating to people how they should worship God.”

Christians need to think clearly about all of these issues. As of now, the CDC guidelines are not likely to have any language speaking directly to religious organizations or institutions. Is that right or wrong? Are the religious liberty concerns overblown or are they genuine? Shouldn’t the government do what it can to control the spread of the disease?

There is a crucial distinction that must be upheld, namely, the difference between targeted orders and generally applicable policies. If an order is generally applicable, it is probably constitutional. If, however, a policy targets a specific sector of society, it is probably unconstitutional. In this case, some states have targeted religious institutions and organizations with specific and restrictive policies that are not shared by the general society.

The protection of religious liberty, especially during a national crisis, requires constant vigilance. A pandemic does not negate the liberties granted in the constitution.

To be clear, the CDC must offer guidance on how to stop the spread of the virus—that is necessary and essential. What it must refrain from doing, however, is codifying specific policies that target churches and other religious groups. It is not the business of the CDC or any government agency to address religious institutions, organizations, and congregations with direct guidance.

The CDC interim guidelines, now weeks old, stated, “For religious services, give people the option to watch online, live or recorded if possible. In addition to technology, this involves permission from religious leaders that it is acceptable to not attend religious services in person. Viewers can send a comment via the online live stream platform or an email or text to let you know they are watching. This also may involve permission or guidance about the use of electronic devices at times when that practice is usually not permitted, such as the Jewish Sabbath.”

This is completely unnecessary and could have been avoided.

General guidelines are sufficient to inform citizens of what is right and wrong, what is helpful and what might cause a further spread of the virus. No guidance was needed, for example, about church choirs. A policy could have been drafted about choirs in general, discussing the hazard of having choirs practice and perform together. The same is true for assemblies. No government or agency should direct a specific prohibition against the gathering of people in houses of worship. Instead, general guidance can offer guidelines for all assemblies, period.

A choir was apparently the source for a “super-spreader” event in Washington State, but the choir was not even a religious choir. The CDC is entirely within its authority to warn about the danger of mass choirs and to offer guidance for musical groups – all musical groups. The same is true for other assemblies. No assembly should defy distancing and sanitation guidelines. We are all in this together, and Christian witness is on the line.

Love of God and love of neighbor require that under almost all circumstances, Christians can and should respect generally applicable policies. We respect government and understand its role as revealed to us in the Scriptures. We want to preserve human life—indeed, the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention has released suggestions for churches as they navigate these tumultuous times. It is entirely right that Christian denominations offer advice and counsel to churches. That is reasonable and helpful.

Christians, moreover, must understand that when a policy infringes on a constitutional liberty, it may not have been intended as such. Intentionality aside, any breach of religious freedom must be confronted and corrected.

Also, as Christians seek to protect constitutional freedoms, we must also be at the forefront of those who are careful, cautious, and doing all we can to stop the spread of the virus. That means taking it upon ourselves to enact necessary precautions against any policy or procedure that leads to another outbreak of the virus. Defending religious liberty is not a justification for recklessness, nor is liberty a license to be irresponsible. We dishonor the name of Christ when rashness eclipses love of neighbor.

At the same time, Christians yearn to be together again and resume in-person worship because that is how it ought to be. That is God’s design. We eagerly plan and we aim to be together again – but at the right time and in the right manner. We must plan carefully for it now so that we can resume gathering together in a way that is safe and glorifying to God.

This is our calling. We are called to respect government, obey rightful directives, and pursue love of neighbor at all times.

R. Albert Mohler, Jr.

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