Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's executive order exempting churches from a statewide ban on gatherings of 50 people or more has been denounced by a secularist group that is urging her to revoke the religious exemption.
Whitmer, a democrat, issued the order limiting gathering numbers in response to concerns about the spread of the coronavirus and later added an exemption for houses of worship.
Rachel Laser, president of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, sent a letter to the governor on Monday calling the exemption “dangerous” and “unconstitutional.”
“The exemption invites houses of worship to violate the stay-at-home directive, putting the public health at risk,” Laser wrote.
“Attendance at these gatherings is dangerous not just for the individuals who attend, but for all of us. COVID-19 spreads exponentially, so it is critical that we ‘flatten the curve’ by maintaining social distance.”
Laser argued that there was “no federal constitutional requirement that the state exempt houses of worship from such bans.”
“On the contrary, the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution prohibits the government from exempting houses of worship from this general public-safety ban,” she continued.
“… when deciding whether to grant religious accommodations, government must do no harm to others; and it therefore is forbidden to grant a religious exemption that puts people at risk. The separation of church and state does not require a religious exemption but rather prohibits it.”
Americans United called on Whitmer to immediately revoke the exemption for houses of worship, reiterating the concerns for public health.
Last week, Whitmer issued an executive order prohibiting "all assemblages of more than 50 people in a single indoor shared space and all events of more than 50 people," later adding an exemption for "a place of religious worship."
Michigan House Speaker Lee Chatfield, a Republican, took to his official Facebook page to thank the governor for clarifying that religious services were exempted.
"People have a God-given right to assemble and worship, and that right is secured by both the United States and Michigan Constitution. While I do not think that that right can be taken away by an Executive Order, I believe that as Christians we also have a duty to love our fellow man and play our role within society," he wrote.
"At times, we cancel services because the meteorologist predicts inclement weather. Why do we do this? Because we want people to stay safe."
For her part, Whitmer told “Fox News Sunday” anchor John Roberts that she believed the government did not have the right to order houses of worship to close over the pandemic.
“Well, you know, the separation of church and state and the Republican legislature asked me to clarify that,” said Whitmer.
“That's an area that we don't have the ability to directly enforce and control. We are encouraging people, though, do not congregate.”