This article discusses churches that held live Palm Sunday gatherings either in direct defiance of, or skirting, local stay at home orders.
At one Los Angeles-area church, “congregants lined up 6 feet apart on Palm Sunday, waiting to take communion….. Ten people were allowed inside at a time, with someone spraying chairs with disinfectant after each use.” The night before, the pastor, knowing he was going to offer these services and upset that churches were deemed “nonessential” under California stay-at-home orders, resigned his position on the local City Council. More than 1200 people showed up for Palm Sunday services at a Baton Rouge, Louisiana church led by a pastor who already had been charged last week with violating the state’s stay-at-home order.
While Vice President Pence has encouraged religious institutions to follow the CDC’s guidance on limiting all in-person gatherings to no more than 10 people, at least five states — Florida, Texas, North Carolina, and Arizona — have designated religious institutions offering live, in-person services as “essential” under their state’s emergency orders, and another (Michigan) has exempted “a place of religious worship, when used for religious worship” from penalties for violating the state’s social distancing order. Churches in other states intend to challenge their state’s orders as violating first amendment rights to religious freedom and freedom of assembly. However, state authority to impose public health measures to protect against the spread of an active infectious disease outbreak have consistently been held to be constitutional, even if they affect religious practices, so long as the laws are “neutral” and do not single out religious institutions for such restrictions.
These exceptions and challenges in the name of individual and religious liberty create significant vulnerabilities in public health efforts to slow the spread of the virus, putting potentially greater strain on public health and health care resources already under stressed. As one emergency room physician stated in the New York Times, “If we stop doing what we’re doing, it could deteriorate so quickly, and our resources could be overwhelmed so quickly. It’s scary for the people in this community, and scary for us as hospital workers, to be inundated with that.”