Many worshipers of various faiths and denominations across the Yakima Valley will meet today with their fellow believers. Some of the faithful choose to meet on other days of the week. Most, hopefully, will continue to follow health and safety guidelines put forth by county, state and national medical experts.
The issue of freedom of worship vs. health precautions has been a point of contention since Gov. Jay Inslee’s stay-at-home directive was issued in late March. As time has passed, the initial COVID-19 scare of a couple of months ago and accompanying respect for health and safety recommendations has given way to more and more skepticism as well as concern over what’s perceived by many as a violation of constitutional rights.
Acknowledging those concerns, Inslee issued new guidelines May 27 that relaxed rules for worship gatherings but strove to protect the safety of attendees. The guidelines allow up to 100 people, not including staff members, to meet outdoors at the property of a faith organization. For counties that are in Phase 2 of Inslee’s four-phase plan for reopening the state, services can be indoors, but attendance is limited to 25% of building capacity or 50 people, whichever is less.
Coronavirus-wracked Yakima County, however, is still entrenched in Phase 1 and is likely to stay there for some weeks due to stubbornly high COVID-19 infection rates. This means that outdoor services — complete with social distancing and face masks — have joined online or virtual services as sanctioned options. Indoor services have not.
A week ago, the first Sunday of the more relaxed rules, about 30 people met inside a Yakima church in clear violation of Inslee’s directive. The service lasted for more than two hours and included prayers, singing and a message from the pastor proclaiming in part that congregants were demonstrating faith, exercising their constitutional rights and making a statement of the autonomy of the church. During the sermon, no masks were worn.
“We meet here today because we are not afraid,” said the Rev. Andy Ferguson, pastor at First Baptist Comunidad Cristiana church. “We meet here today because we put our trust in God. We meet here today because there are some things worse than death, and some things that are more important than living.”
That’s certainly one way of looking at things.
Luis Avila, director of Hispanic Ministries for The International Pentecostal Holiness Church, offered another way. Taking health and safety precautions does not mean pastors and churches are abandoning their calling, he said recently.
“Taking care of people does not mean that you are not faithful,” he said. “We can have faith and at the same time abide by the recommendations.”
For an idea of how a church service can go very wrong in the coronavirus era, go back to early March — before Inslee’s shut-down order — and the Skagit Valley Chorale choir practice held in Mount Vernon. Although it wasn’t a church service, it took place in a church in similar circumstances to what a typical worshiper might experience on any given Sunday.
Sixty-one people attended the 2½-hour practice, one of whom felt ill. From that one person, 32 others later had confirmed cases of COVID-19 and 20 more cases were probable. Two died; three others were hospitalized. It’s known as a “superspreader event.”
So … who’s right and who’s wrong? Are Inslee’s directives a clear violation of constitutional rights guaranteeing freedom of worship? Inslee himself acknowledged the argument May 27, noting that religion is constitutionally protected and that therefore “We think it deserves an extra degree of acuity in figuring out what is in the realm of the possible.”
The U.S. Supreme Court weighed in May 29 with a 5-4 decision upholding California’s restrictions on worship services. Siding with the majority, Chief Justice John Roberts wrote that state leaders have broad leeway in times of medical uncertainty and that Gov. Gavin Newsom’s order did not single out religious services, instead covering many activities “where large groups of people gather in close proximity for extended periods of time.” California guidelines allow for 100 attendees or 25% of capacity, whichever is smaller.
Nothing is an easy sell regarding this topic; the high court’s four consistently conservative justices dissented, with Brett Kavanaugh, the newest justice, arguing that the directive unconstitutionally singles out religion.
But … isn’t organized religion, as part of its very foundation, obliged to take a leading role in preserving the health and well-being of all people? Health experts across the country have stressed from the beginning that social distancing, hand-washing, mask-wearing, staying home when possible, and all other safety measures are in place not just to protect you or me but to guard the health of our most vulnerable residents, particularly seniors and people with compromised immune systems. This principle has not changed.
Can we not argue that with our constitutional guarantees comes the liberty to put others first, the freedom to exercise common sense, the autonomy to act for the common good?
We close by directing this question at any and all who are part of a faith community: According to the principles of your faith, whatever it may be, are you or are you not supposed to put others first?