The Dangers of COVID-19 Religious Exemptions: Part I

I should like to note at the very onset that this blog post (Parts I and II) on religious exemptions is both timely and horribly outdated. The information presented here in this post is nothing new, and yet the talking points must continue to be spoken as though it were the first time anyone has heard it. Why?

Because the United States is in deep s[trouble]t; and as Pranish Kantesaria, director of pharmacy at Baylor Scott & White Institute for Rehabilitation, once remarked, “Sometimes it feels like no matter what you say or do, nobody is going to care. We’ve become more comfortable living with the anxiety.”

I, for one, am not willing to accept this resignation without expressing some form of outrage. And I believe religious exemptions are something we need to talk about.

By now, it is no surprise that the novel Coronavirus, COVID-19, has disrupted or impacted major aspects of the American way of life. From the economy to interpersonal relationships, the effects of this global pandemic will be far reaching and, potentially, havoc-wreaking. In order to minimize the spread of COVID-19 and to flatten the curve of new cases, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends avoiding close contact with other people through social distancing (maintaining at least 6 feet of distance between you and people outside your home). Expectedly, this causes a number of problems for those attending a place of worship.

How are congregants to maintain social-distancing when they usually sit in close contact with other worshippers? The obvious solution for many is simply to close these places of worship temporarily until the pandemic recedes. But this solution proved both controversial and offensive for segments of the American public. As a result, the majority of states had issued religious exemptions for COVID-19 social distancing. Indeed, back in April, one-third of US states had absolutely no restrictions or limitations on attendance size for churches.

We are now seeing the drastically negative effects of these exclusions. We will take a look at the state of Texas as just one example.

The Initial Defiance of Texas

By 20 April 2020, at least 42 states had issued “stay-at-home” orders, declaring that the general public (at the time, approximately 95% of the American public) should not go to work, should not go to school, and should not leave their homes unless absolutely necessary. The stay-at-home orders coincided with other governmental regulations that closed most in-person businesses, restaurants, social outings, places of worship, and public spaces. Not surprisingly, segments of the American population defied these orders and protested measures to slow the spread of the Coronavirus because, as they claim, the orders are an infringement on their civil liberties and religious freedom. Thus, calls for religious exemptions were heard immediately.

What seems to be happening here, as was the case with Patrick Scales of the Shield of Faith Family Church in California, is an artificial manufacturing of religious persecution . . . all for the sake of being able to claim they have been persecuted for their religious beliefs. As Tennessee pastor, Tony Suarez, told The Atlantic, “My biggest passion in life is religious liberty and protecting the persecuted Church around the world. And now it’s come to my back door.”

The only manufactured crisis taking place is the one concocted by religious leaders who claim they are being persecuted for the faith because they have been asked to slow the spread of a deadly virus and demanded unreasonable religious exemptions.

Of course, there is nothing in Christianity that demands attending religious services or large gatherings during a global pandemic, and absolutely no government agency is persecuting American Christians for practicing their faith or preventing them from attending services online.

One such place where this false notion of persecution occurs is in Texas, despite the fact that houses of worship have religious exemptions from the state’s stay-at-home order.

On 16 April, conservative activists held a “get-to-work rally” outside of the Texas Governor’s mansion, demanding that restrictions be lifted on businesses. On 18 April, several hundred conservatives held a protest at the Texas capital building, demanding that the social distancing restrictions also be lifted. To show their defiance and lack of respect for the temporary laws, these Texans gathered in large crowds while flaunting the 6-foot social distancing recommendation from the CDC. On 17 April, Texas Governor Greg Abbott eased Coronavirus restrictions by allowing businesses and other venues to reopen. During Abbott’s announcement, he stated, “Because of efforts by everyone to slow the spread we’re beginning to see glimmers that the worst of COVID-19 may soon be behind us.” He went on to remark, “Deaths, while far too high, will not come close to the early dire predictions.”

Talk about a misguided and boneheaded remark!

None of this is too surprising since the majority of those who are politically conservative or vote Republican (i.e. the majority of American evangelicals and Christians in the South) do not believe news reports about COVID-19. In fact, only half of Republican voters believe the CDC has the correct facts about the Coronavirus, and less than half think their state governments get the facts right. Now, almost two-thirds of Republicans believe the global pandemic has been overblown.

As the total US deaths from Coronavirus has surpassed 170,000 American lives (over 1,000 deaths a day), a recent national poll revealed that the majority of Republicans believe this is an acceptable amount of deaths.

At the time of Governor Abbott’s easing of restrictions, Texas had 18,200 confirmed cases of COVID-19 with 453 related deaths. As you already know by now, that number has skyrocketed to staggering proportions.

The Failure of Texas’ Defiance

As of 23 August 2020, Texas now has the third largest occurrences of Coronavirus with 589,349 confirmed cases and 11,581 related deaths, surpassing even New York. In fact, Texas is now breaking its own records of single-day infection rates while, sadly, averaging about 66 deaths per day at the beginning of July and recording 197 deaths in a single day on 22 July. As of 22 August, 5,274 people were currently hospitalized due to COVID-19. By the end of July, 4 out of 10 Coronavirus hotspots in the United States were located in the state of Texas alone.

In fact, on 20 July, Texas had surpassed 4,000 deaths. By 27 July, the number of deaths rose to 5,713. This means that at the time, 20% of all of Texas’ COVID-related deaths occurred in just 6 days. In some Texas counties, the deaths are so numerous that officials have resorted to storing–not just transporting—piles of corpses in refrigerated trucks. There’s now a two-week waiting period at crematoriums to dispose of the dead.

In a major way, it is understandable why businesses and churches are desperate to reopen. According to one survey, 14% of American Baptist Churches say their congregations have been hit very hard financially by the pandemic with 20% of their congregants now being unemployed. 60% of these churches say giving has declined since the pandemic, and two-thirds have concerns about balancing their budgets. 73% of respondents believe that the Coronavirus has negatively impacted their worship practices.

Now, Texas is having to reverse course and begin closing many of its businesses once again . . . with one major exemption: places of worship. In Part II of this blog post series, I will argue that allowing religious exemptions is a very . . . bad . . . idea. But thankfully, the majority of churches are doing their part to follow public health guidelines and flatten the curve of Coronavirus cases. It’s the politically-motivated congregations and pastors that we have to worry about, and allowing religious exemptions only encourages these fringe churches to put the rest of us at risk.

**to be continued in Part II**

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