While many houses of worship have closed voluntarily to protect their congregants from the coronavirus, there have been instances of state and local governments compelling them to cease operation. In some of these cases, governments have done so even when the institutions in question were cooperating with social-distancing guidelines; in others it seemed that places of prayer were being singled out for special scrutiny. Michael McConnell and Max Raskin call attention to two tried and true principles that can ensure that public-health measure do not infringe on one of America’s oldest and most cherished freedoms:
First, separation of church and state does not give religious communities immunity from regulation that is necessary for the common good.
The second principle is that the government can regulate religious activity only through what the Supreme Court calls “neutral” and “generally applicable” laws. This means that a government requirement cannot single out religious activity on the ground that it is somehow dispensable or “nonessential.” The government may regulate religious activities no more strictly than it regulates secular activities that present comparable risks. This principle was invoked by Judge Justin Walker of the Western District of Kentucky when he allowed a drive-in Easter service to take place in a church parking lot with cars six feet apart from one another. Noting that Kentucky permitted drive-through liquor stores to continue operating, the court quipped, “if beer is ‘essential,’ so is Easter.”
Third, both sides must seek what the courts call “reasonable accommodations.” . . . Government officials must continue to be vigilant about realistic public-health dangers from religious practice, but they must identify “less restrictive” means for achieving their purposes. For instance, Jewish ritual baths, called mikvahs, are permitted to operate in the tristate area, but are doing so with stricter rules and regulations, including enhanced disinfection and cleaning, and they are visited by appointment only.
Religious leaders and congregations will have to remember that the First Amendment is not an exemption from law applicable to all. And government officials must not forget that religious exercise is at the apex of our national values. Mass is not a football game, a minyan not a cruise. Worship cannot shelter in place indefinitely.