Conservative Christian activists have largely framed the debate over whether houses of worship should resume in-person worship as a matter of defending religious freedom. But tucked into these arguments about religious liberty, some have also been pushing a claim that doesn’t seem to stand up to scrutiny ― the claim that if businesses like grocery stores, laundromats, and warehouses can safely remain open, churches can do the same.
Health experts say that comparing churches to the essential businesses that remained open throughout the pandemic is misleading, especially as researchers begin to learn more about how SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes COVID-19, spreads during mass gatherings. Still, these comparisons have been repeated by pastors across the country, as well as law firms that spearhead the conservative Christian legal movement. Last week, President Donald Trump called on governors to reopen houses of worship, calling it an “injustice” that that “liquor stores and abortion clinics” were open when churches were not.
With a slew of churches set to open their doors this weekend, some health experts are warning that these comparisons ignore the fact that worship services are substantially different from gatherings that take place in grocery stores and even in restaurants.
Dr. Dean Winslow, an infectious disease specialist at the Stanford University Medical Center, told HuffPost he’s worried that the tussle over religious liberty during the pandemic is overshadowing genuine public health concerns.
“Decisions around opening churches shouldn’t be a culture war issue,” Winslow said. “SARS-CoV-2 is a lethal pathogen which doesn’t discriminate. Restrictions on large indoor assemblies are meant to save lives.”
Why Houses Of Worship Are Different
Some studies have suggested that SARS-CoV-2 could potentially spread through tiny, aerosolized respiratory droplets. Aerosolized particles can linger in the air inside poorly ventilated buildings for some time, Winslow said. Loud singing, a common element of religious services, is particularly efficient in producing these aerosolized particles. Winslow pointed to a choir practice that took place in Washington state on March 10, where one sick singer is suspected to have infected 53 people, two of whom died.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention published a report earlier this month that suggested the spread of COVID-19 during the Washington choir practice was likely “augmented by the act of singing.”
High-powered speaking, such as what happens during a religious testimony or when people yell out a “Hallelujah,” has also been connected to COVID-19 spread, Neysa Ernst, a nurse manager at the Johns Hopkins Biocontainment Unit, told HuffPost.
In addition, people in houses of worship behave differently toward each other than they would towards strangers they see at grocery stores, Ernst said.
“Before COVID-19 and certainly now in this pandemic, people are usually uncomfortable with others in close physical proximity in places such as grocery stores, liquor stores, laundromats, restaurants, and malls,” Ernst told HuffPost. “Church is a place we are more comfortable in close proximity with people who share a common faith.”
Unlike liquor stores, where the population is transient, religious services can last for more than an hour, which increases the risk of infection. The churchgoing population also generally tends to skew older and, as a result, is more likely to be at risk for complications if they contract the virus.
At the same time, houses of worship are likely more manageable than concerts and other massive gatherings in stadiums, since people in religious settings tend to be much more controlled and respectful of others nearby, according to Dr. Peter Chin-Hong, an infectious disease specialist at the University of California, San Francisco.
Chin-Hong said that he understands that attending religious services can be therapeutic for people of faith, especially those who are sick and looking for spiritual comfort. He said it’s important not to forget that there are health benefits that people get from going to houses of worship and having their spiritual needs addressed.
But as a physician, he said he’s concerned that the debates over reopening houses of worship have become “polarized.”
“I’m worried people are just blocking out the science just because they say, ‘Those people don’t get my experience of why I want to go to church,’” Chin-Hong said. “From a scientific perspective, people are just worried that if people forget about protecting themselves, that we’ll see a surge and all the public health measures everyone was so good about, that we’ll lose some of that progress.”
How False Comparisons Bolster Religious Liberty Claims
Comparisons between houses of worship and businesses started circulating during some of the earliest public standoffs in the U.S. around in-person worship during the pandemic. Lawyers for Rodney Howard-Browne, the Florida pastor arrested on March 30 for defying local restrictions on church services, lambasted the fact that an Amazon warehouse in the same county was allowed to remain open. Tony Spell, the Louisiana pastor who gained notoriety for repeatedly ignoring local police’s attempts to enforce restrictions on religious services, has been comparing going to church to going to Walmart.
“If you’re going to persecute our church for staying open, don’t go to Walmart, don’t go to Planned Parenthood, don’t go to the liquor store because you’re a hypocrite,” Spell said during a service on March 29.
The argument picked up steam in the following weeks, with some conservative Christian legal groups complaining that houses of worship were being unfairly singled out and treated differently from secular businesses. Then, these faulty comparisons began appearing in courts. A federal judge in Kansas issued an order in mid-April arguing that it was unconstitutional for the state to restrict religious services, while allowing other establishments ― airports, offices, production facilities ― to remain open with safety measures. In Kentucky, another federal judge asserted in early May that “if social distancing is good enough for Home Depot and Kroger, it is good enough for in-person religious services.”
The Department of Justice has also waded in to the issue, arguing that allowing gatherings of workers in “retail businesses, including liquor stores, dry cleaners and department stores,” while restricting church meetings amounted to “unlawful discrimination.”
Despite the CDC’s report on the hazards of singing, the Trump administration removed warnings about restricting singing from the CDC’s guidelines for faith communities on Friday. The updated guidelines also added language stating that the CDC’s recommendations are “not intended to infringe on rights protected by the First Amendment.”
Houses of worship have already started to reopen in parts of the country, many with significant changes in place to try to combat the spread of the virus ― requiring reservations, adding more worship services to reduce crowding, and increasing cleaning efforts.
In California, hundreds of churches plan to reopen on May 31, as part of a campaign led by a Christian legal firm. Some are attempting to abide by guidelines recently put in place by Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) for houses of worship. But others, like Fresno’s Cornerstone Church, are planning to ignore key instructions, such as reducing attendance, claiming that these limits violate religious freedom rights.
“We will be safe,” Cornerstone’s Pastor Pastor Jim Franklin told the Fresno Bee ahead of the reopening this weekend. “We just want to be treated fairly. If a big-box store can do this, so can we.”
Comparing churches to retail stores is like comparing apples to oranges, Winslow said, since certain risky behaviors are much more likely to take place during religious services.
“People are making these false comparisons, saying that Christians are victims and being singled out,” he said.
As an “enthusiastic” Christian who loves going to church, Winslow said he personally can’t wait to go back. But right now, he said he knows it’s “probably not the smartest thing to do.”
“I would be thinking about going very slowly and very carefully with reopening services,” he said.
How To Tell If Your House Of Worship Is Prepared For COVID-19
Chin-Hong suggested that people who are determined to attend services this weekend take some time to evaluate how well their house of worship seems to have understood the risks of COVID-19.
“I think of it as assessing the [house of worship’s] COVID-19 IQ,” Chin-Hong said. “How much do they actually know about COVID-19 and are they being intelligent about reducing the risk for their congregation?”
A house of worship with a good COVID-19 “IQ” would be reducing attendance significantly, disinfecting surfaces and keeping hand sanitizers available, and maybe even doing symptom screenings at the door, Chin-Hong said. They may think about reducing the number of singers in the choir, or ensuring that the choir members are spaced out. It’s also important for people to socially distance from others in the pews behind, in front, and horizontally to where one is sitting, he said.
Outdoor worship services are the best choice for now, Winslow said. If the service takes place indoors, he believes face masks shouldn’t be optional, as some churches have suggested, but “absolutely mandatory” to reduce the generation of aerosols, Winslow said.
“No one is immune to illness and death from this virus and I would encourage people to focus on that and let science, as much as possible, drive these decisions, particularly about reopening businesses and houses of worship,” he said. “It really should not be a culture wars issue.”