Brian Kaylor on There Should Be No Plague-Pandemic Privilege for Churches

Brian Kaylor sitting in the Missouri Senate hearing room before testifying on Jan. 20, 2021.
Brian Kaylor sitting in the Missouri Senate hearing room before testifying on Jan. 20, 2021.

(Missouri Independent) — Even before we are out of the coronavirus pandemic, Missouri’s lawmakers are considering bills that would make it more difficult to keep people safe in a future pandemic.

And several bills would also upset our healthy church-state balance by carving out a special pandemic privilege for religious groups. As a Baptist minister who takes seriously the biblical teachings to love my neighbors, I oppose such legislation.

While lawmakers fight off coronavirus outbreaks among themselves, a top legislative priority this session quickly emerged: taking power away from local officials during a health emergency. Refusing to accept insights from scientists and medical professionals, these maskless lawmakers insist they know better and should alone decide what health-related restrictions are acceptable.

Most of the bills focus on concerns about restaurants and other businesses, but several would also create a broad religious exemption for houses of worship from any local or state pandemic order. I testified against three Senate bills last month not because I do not care about religious liberty, but precisely because I cherish religious liberty for all.

I do worry about government infringing on our free exercise rights. But we need to remember that our First Amendment includes two religion clauses. And we must respect them both—not just the Free Exercise Clause but also the Establishment Clause. These two clauses sit together and thus demand balance. The problem with those Senate bills and several similar ones in the House is they have no such balance.

While all the bills rightly advocate for free exercise rights, they swing too far in the other direction by infringing on the Establishment Clause. But that clause is also important to protect true religious liberty. To carve out a special pandemic privilege just for religious adherents is to favor religion over non-religion. It is to grant special rights to religious individuals and groups that are not given to nonbelievers. That is, to violate the Establishment Clause.

During the COVID-19 pandemic we have seen examples of governments going too far by infringing on the free exercise rights of houses of worship. And the courts have stepped in to override those rules that wrongly targeted religious institutions. But the courts have also rejected many of the challenges brought by houses of worship because the courts noted that religious gatherings in those cases were being treated like similar gatherings. That’s the balance we need and that these bills lack.

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Source: Word & Way