The Dangers of COVID-19 Religious Exemptions: Part II

In the last post of this series, we discussed how most states have given religious exemptions to the mandatory stay-at-home orders, and even some congregations are adamantly defying (or debating following) mandatory mask orders. We now return to look at the state of Texas as a case study and the dangerous toll religious exemptions can have on the health of the American church and, more importantly, the larger public of which it serves.

Will Texas Ever Learn?

What do you get when you close most social gatherings and quarantine people inside their homes for several weeks?

Answer: people desperate for any opportunity to leave their homes and congregate together.

So, what do you get when you close most social gatherings except for places of worship during a quarantine and fail to instruct those places of worship to follow CDC guidelines for stopping the spread of COVID-19?

Answer: a flood of people attending religious services and then a flood of people getting sick and dying.

As the CDC has consistently reminded the public, we are currently in a state of Public Health Emergency where gathering in large crowds not only helps spread Coronavirus, but it also puts people’s lives at risk. Realizing that people will still want to attend places of worship, the CDC has recommended the following precautions:

  • Offer virtual worship services online and avoid reopening congregation buildings if at all possible.

  • If a place of worship feels they must reopen, then encourage all staff and congregants to wear cloth face masks to prevent spreading COVID-19.

Yet, under pressure from conservative activists, the CDC also has one major caveat:

“The federal government may not prescribe standards for interactions of faith communities in houses of worship, and in accordance with the First Amendment, no faith community should be asked to adopt any mitigation strategies that are more stringent than the mitigation strategies asked of similarly situated entities or activities.”

But who would be reckless enough to refuse adopting the CDC’s guidelines on face masks? Surely, the fact that people’s lives are at risk would be incentive enough, right?

For instance, the state of Virginia requires that church attendees wear a mask, though they can remove the mask to participate in religious rituals such as taking communion. This makes sense since, as has been demonstrated around the world, mask-wearing slows the spread of the Coronavirus.

Sadly, this is not the case for some places, such as those living in many parts of Texas. On 2 July, Texas Governor Abbott issued a statewide order mandating that most Texans in most counties must wear face masks when in public. But of course, the mandate does not require religionists to obey the order when worshipping in large in-door crowds.

The Problem: Churches Superspread Coronavirus

Shockingly, 57% of American Baptist Churches say that worship attendance has actually increased during the global pandemic while 20% say they will discontinue online services and return to their traditional formats.

Despite Texas televangelist, Kenneth Copeland, claiming to “blow” away the Coronavirus, there have been a number of pastors in Texas (and across the country) who refuse to take matters of life and death seriously enough to require face masks with their in-person services. This was the case with Pastor Joel Garza of Nueces County who refused to adhere to the state’s stay-at-home order. His reasoning: “I believe it’s the best place for us to be is at church.” A different pastor in Florida said that only “pansies” close their churches. Likewise, Pastor Andrew Wommack from Colorado says he refuses to wear a face mask because he does not believe Jesus would have worn a mask (never mind the fact that Jesus didn’t stream cable on his television, either, which doesn’t seem to stop Pastor Wommack from watching Netflix). Indeed, Houston’s Nassau Bay Baptist Church actually has a seating section for those who do not want to wear a mask during service.

But at what cost? I thought these Christians were “pro-life.”

The Coronavirus is about three times more infectious than the common flu, meaning that one person who has COVID-19 could likely spread it to three other people. In a worst case scenario, if each one of those people spread the virus to three more people (and this happens ten times over), then upwards of 59,000 people could be infected from just one person!

And unfortunately, what we’re now seeing with major church outbreaks is that places of worship are superspreading COVID-19. For example, back in May, there was a major outbreak of Coronavirus at the Holy Ghost Parish in Houston, Texas where the presiding priest, Father Donnell Kirchner, died from the virus. The church is now permanently closed.

In June, Calvary Chapel church in Universal City, Texas started allowing people to hug during church services. The result was that over 50 people, staff and congregants, became infected with the virus, which forced the church to close. Stubbornly, the church’s pastor, Ron Arbaugh, said he planned to reopen his church again in July.

The list goes on and on:

In March, 43 people fell ill at a Pentecostal church in Illinois.

In June, a church in Oregon became the epicenter of the state’s largest COVID outbreak with 236 congregants testing positive.

37 people were infected with Coronavirus at the Greers Ferry First Assembly church in Arkansas. In this case, it was the pastor who spread the virus to his congregants when hosting an in-person Bible study group, which then led to the death of a 91-year-old member of their church.

A Virginia pastor, who arrogantly downplayed the severity of the pandemic, ended up dying from COVID-19.

Another Virginia church had 41 confirmed cases of infection.

In Texas, a 44-year old Sunday School teacher at Oakwood Church in Austin, Adolph (T.J.) Mendez, died of the virus. Houston pastor, Manson B. Johnson II, also lost his life from contracting COVID-19.

Is it any wonder, then, that only one-in-four Americans and only one-in-three Christians look to the church to help solve community issues? At the very least, many of these churches could be leading the fight to convince people to protect themselves and society’s vulnerable during the pandemic.

What Can Churches Do to Help, Instead?

Of course, we can empathize with many of these churches wanting things to return to normal and to see congregants back in the pews. There may even be a general anxiety about whether people will ever come back to church, especially since almost half of churched adults have not regularly streamed church services and one-third of regular attenders have missed church entirely, despite the overwhelming majority of pastors (96%) holding virtual sermons. Oddly, this data appears to contradict many pastors (45%) who say that online attendance has actually increased during the pandemic. Moreover, the latest reports from July suggest that as many as one-third of congregants have dropped out of church altogether . . . at least during the pandemic.

There are numerous creative and common-sense ways for holding church services in a safe and healthy manner. This is especially important since two-thirds of the American public are still uncomfortable attending in-person religious services. Some of the more responsible options include:

  • Holding outdoor services while enforcing mandatory mask and social distancing policies

  • Holding virtual services

If in-person services are absolutely necessary, then:

  • Do not allow anyone on premise that exhibits COVID- or flu-related symptoms

  • Take the temperature of everyone attending church service

  • Enforce mandatory mask policies

  • Enforce social distancing by ensuring family/household units do not stand, sit, or congregate next to other units

  • Insist on no live singing

  • Insist on online giving

  • Place hand sanitizer stations throughout the church

  • Hold only one service per week

  • Limit the number of people who can attend the church service

  • Limit the number of places people can congregate within the church

  • Perform a deep and thorough cleaning of the church after every service

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