Coffin, 4-5-2020

The issue of banning religious gatherings had drawn nationwide headlines after mega-church pastor Rodney Howard-Browne was charged with unlawful assembly and violation of a public health emergency order in Hillsborough County, Florida. Bail was set at $500. He was released once it was posted.

But the question lingers: Do faith groups have a constitutional right to assemble for worship when local, state or national authorities have issued a stay-at-home order because of a public health crisis? Opinions vary. But whatever the opinion, it’s almost certain to be held strongly.

While the Constitution’s First Amendment says that Congress shall make no law prohibiting the free exercise of religion, no constitutionally guaranteed right is absolute.

At times, rights collide with other rights — or with atypical on-the-ground realities. When that happens, religious rights are abrogated only when government can claim a compelling interest in doing so.

The heightened risk of contracting and spreading a highly contagious and lethal virus during a pandemic seems compelling to large numbers in all faiths — including many, if not a strong majority, of congregations within Christianity.

Houses of worship can’t claim the First Amendment in order to avoid an array of rules and regulations — maximum occupancy of their building, general fire safety, adequate parking, safe vehicular entrance and exit from the property, general repair and appearance of the facility.

While such laws may inconvenience religious entities, they in no way rob us of religious rights. They simply require faith groups to consider the safety and general wellbeing of the entire community just as other entities and individuals must do.

The U.S. Constitution guarantees rights. By contrast, I would argue that the holy writings of most faith traditions spend much more time addressing responsibilities than defining rights. And if responsibilities and rights seem to conflict, responsibilities typically take precedence.

The most prolific contributor to Christianity’s sacred canon, the apostle Paul, contrasted “lawful” and “expedient,” suggesting that we might need to forgo even what’s lawful if it’s counterproductive to the greater good. If something doesn’t pass the “beneficial” and “constructive” test, it may need to be abandoned.

Jesus said the second-greatest commandment was to love our neighbors as we love ourselves. Since I know my neighbors don’t want coronavirus, I shouldn’t take any unnecessary step that might place them in jeopardy.

Jesus also said we should treat others as we’d want to be treated if the tables were turned. Would I want people with whom I’m likely to come in contact to be placing themselves in circumstances that may make them carriers of a disease that jeopardizes my family and me?

Quarantine and physical distancing are both biblical concepts that people of that time were expected to honor. And there were no carve-outs that allowed the potentially infected to come to the house of worship.

The fact that Moses laid down such clear laws about protecting society suggests he wasn’t operating on the assumption that God was going to miraculously protect people from contagions. Nor are people being protected in houses of worship today, as numerous news reports have shown.

Those who demand the right to — in the name of religion — unnecessarily subject themselves and others to lethal risk may have the Constitution on their side. It’s unlikely, but debatable.

Far less debatable is whether they have the Bible and age-old considerations of ethics and ethical conduct on their side.

But there’s no debate whatsoever as to whether general public sentiment is on their side. It’s not. Such priorities and actions are viewed as arrogant, selfish and antisocial.

Government officials who think they’re doing religion a favor by these carve-outs are in reality pushing religion into something insidiously destructive long-term: a heavily damaged public image.

James Coffin is executive director of the Interfaith Council of Central Florida.