Mark Silk on Why Governments Should Not Be Deeming in-Person Worship Essential

President Donald Trump stands near a portrait of George Washington at a Wounded Warrior Project Soldier Ride event in the East Room of the White House on April 18, 2019, in Washington. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

Mark Silk is Professor of Religion in Public Life at Trinity College and director of the college’s Leonard E. Greenberg Center for the Study of Religion in Public Life. 

On Sept. 19, 1796, a couple of months before the election that would choose his successor, President George Washington used his farewell address to convey what has become a proof text for those who argue that religion must play a big role in American public life.

Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports. … And let us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion. Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure, reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.

Leaving aside for a moment who Washington may have meant by “minds of peculiar structure,” his statement is the ancestor of the prepared remarks that Donald Trump delivered at an unscheduled press briefing on Friday (May 22).

Today I’m identifying houses of worship, churches, synagogue and mosques as essential places that provide essential services. Some governors have deemed liquor stores and abortion clinics as essential, but have left out churches and other houses of worship. It’s not right. So I’m correcting this injustice and calling houses of worship essential. I call upon governors to allow our churches and places of worship to open right now.

Asserting that these were “places that hold our society together and keep our people united,” Trump wrapped up by declaring, “In America, we need more prayer, not less.”

Trump is entitled to his opinion, of course, but in the United States neither presidents nor governors should be deciding whether houses of worship are (or are not) essential.

The question for civil authorities should be to what extent does their responsibility for public safety empower them to limit people’s religious free exercise. It should make no difference whether liquor stores or abortion clinics or beauty salons or movie theaters or anything else is deemed essential. Houses of worship are, or should be, treated as a thing apart.

Unfortunately, the Supreme Court has required them not to be. Writing for a 5-4 majority 30 years ago in Employment Division v. Smith, Justice Antonin Scalia established new First Amendment doctrine when he declared that so long as a law is “neutral” and “generally applicable,” you can’t go to federal court and claim that your free exercise right has been violated.

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Source: Religion News Service