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COVID-19: Is religious freedom really at stake?

COVID-19: Is religious freedom really at stake?

(Courtesy of Antipas Harris)

The Constitution of the United States sets forth fundamental laws and guarantees certain basic rights for its citizens.  The First Amendment establishes Freedom of Religion, which is under scrutiny in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. Governors across the country have sought to mitigate the devastating spread of COVID-19. They restricted large gatherings, including large worship assemblies. Some of their efforts have sparked tension on the basis of religious freedom. Some people of faith have alleged that underneath the claims of protecting public health is a secularist agenda to chip away at religious freedom.

Friday, May 22, 2020, President Donald Trump publicly criticized state governors for maintaining restrictions on worship gatherings. As with past presidents (Republicans and Democrats), President Trump must be applauded for affirming the essentiality of faith, prayer and corporate worship. Wisdom, love, and compassion are also essential elements of faith. For such a time as this, faith communities must assist, comfort, and provide manifold measures of support for human health and life. Forward-thinking congregations are assisting the community’s needs and connecting through virtual worship. 

In my new book, Is Christianity the White Man’s Religion?, I argue that religious communities must not miss opportunities to bear witness with concern about the health and welfare of all of God’s children. In scripture, Jesus emphasizes the need to tend to the least of these (ref. Matthew 25:31-46). This season has become an important one for local churches to define their mission to emphasize faith attributes beyond singing and fellowshipping in large groups. We are inspired to bear public witness of God’s love.

While government authorities must carefully refrain from burdening, prohibiting or constraining in any way the most essential expressions of faith, in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, it is prudent to avoid large gatherings. This is particularly important for those who engage in vibrant worship. Infected, asymptomatic persons worshippers contribute to an unavoidable viral hotbed and heighten the risk for others to contract the virus. This can be deadly, particularly, for worshippers with preconditions or weak immune systems.

I would ask the president to take notice of the evident unbridled exercise of faith among congregations, noting that convening for worship is not their only significant contribution to faith vitality. Congregations are inspired that their sacred and social worth are vital. Even mainstream media paused for prayer! Reports show both the turn toward and struggle with faith as significant during this time. For example, the African Americans have been hit the hardest. A Pew study reveals that faith has been their safe harbor.

In first century, Christianity spread the most during troubling times and when worship was restricted to homes. Paul used technology of his time to communicate the gospel to believers gathered in their homes. He wrote the Book of Romans to be circulated and read aloud throughout a selection of home sanctuaries.

Comparatively, during the current pandemic, virtual technology has made it convenient for every home to become a sanctuary. The Potter’s House of Dallas is one of many examples of congregations that has experienced this firsthand. Bishop TD Jakes shares the Word of God in thousands of home sanctuaries. The associate pastors host Bible training, Discipleship gatherings, youth meetings, and children sermons. Jakes Divinity School is organizing online training programs to prepare students from around the world for necessary innovative ministry in the church and community.

The Potter’s House also attends to practical needs through congregational care, grief support, and tending to the elderly. The auxiliary arms of The Potter’s House such as United Mega Care has been busy feeding First Responders, thousands of grocery gift-a-ways, and more. The Texas Offenders Re-entry Initiative (TORI) has been helping ex-offenders secure employment. The church is partnering with TD Jakes Foundation to provide a summer virtual STEAM Academy. The Potter’s House Counseling Center extends mental health services to the community. Additionally, Bishop Jakes’ national platform assists local and national efforts to communicate proper medical information for citizens’ health and safety.

Congregations of all faiths are the source of strength and comfort. Ministers, Rabbis, Imams, and chaplains have been busy over the past three months, burying many of the 100,000 deaths related to the pandemic and others who have died by other causes, while also comforting their grieving families.

Is religious freedom really at stake? Perhaps, action taken to protect public health is not in tension with Freedom of Religion or in conflict with the mission of faith practice. The faith community has emerged for greater gospel witness in the public square.

Antipas L. Harris, D.Min., Ph.D., the president-dean of Jakes Divinity School and associate pastor at The Potter’s House of Dallas, TX.

Norman A. Harris, J.D., M.Div., principle owner of Champions for Justice Law, LLC, community activist and ordained minister of the gospel.