Ongoing religious services spark debate over faith verses safety

Most major denominations have suspended gatherings, but some services continue.

By Ivan Pereira

As Christians and Jews begin their holiest week of the year, some theologians say that they’re afraid not enough is being done to keep people safe from the coronavirus.

While most major religious groups have called for the suspension of their services during the pandemic, there are several houses of worship that continue gatherings. Patrick Hornbeck, chair of the theology department at Fordham University, said it is critical that local religious leaders speak out against any outliers who continue to gather.

Hornbeck, an Episcopalian, said those priests, rabbis, congregant community groups, and other figures stand to be the most pragmatic voices during the epidemic, especially with some elected officials providing stay-at-home exemptions for religious gatherings.

“In many religious traditions there is the notion that coming together helps persuade God during these troubling times,” he told ABC News. “The question is … for religious leaders … is that the only way that religion can be interpreted?”

Of the 39 states that currently have shelter-in-place orders, 14 have exemptions for religious gatherings, including Texas and Florida. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ order superseded orders from local municipalities that barred religious gatherings, such as the one that resulted in the arrest of Florida pastor Rodney Howard-Browne for holding services last week.

Although DeSantis’ order cleared the way for Howard-Browne to continue services, the pastor said he was not holding Palm Sunday services this weekend — not because of the coronavirus pandemic, but because of death threats.

Authorities in Louisiana also arrested Pastor Tony Spell last week for holding services at Life Tabernacle Church in Baton Rouge despite repeated warnings from Gov. John Bel Edwards to stop.

However Spell pressed ahead with services this Sunday, drawing more than a thousand congregants for Palm Sunday observances.

Asked by ABC News if holding services would still be worth it if it led to the death of one of his parishioners, Spell said Sunday that “it’s worth it because to live as Christ but to die is gain. To a true born again Christian, death looks to them like a welcome friend. We do not fear death in the virus as much as we do fear living like prisoners in our homes.”

Despite the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which supplements the First Amendment’s protection of religious freedom from governmental interference, Hornbeck said there is a strong legal argument that the government has a right to direct churches to stop holding large gatherings. That’s because the orders represent a strong interest in keeping the public healthy, and they affect all large gatherings, not just churches, he said.

Major denominations like the Catholic Church, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America and the Beth Din of Crown Heights, have instructed their members to worship from home and view services through live broadcasts. Vice President Mike Pence has also called for worshipers to avoid services with more than 10 people.

“This is a dramatic thing, not some unusual practice that happens from time to time,” Hornbeck said. “The fact that these major denominations are closing their doors to protect public health should send a message to others.”

Last month, Rockland County, New York, legislator Aron Wieder, who is an Orthodox Jew, tweeted a video in Yiddish with English subtitles that urged worshipers not to head to their synagogues during the pandemic.

“We need God’s grace to survive this difficult time! God expects you to look out for yourself,” he said in the video.

Hornbeck said that more worshipers and religious leaders should be speaking out in favor of remote services for the common good.

“Religion is a tricky thing for anyone to talk about,” he said. “That having been said, this is not about limiting religion as much as it is about limiting sports games or concerts or other mass gatherings.”

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This report was featured in the Monday, April 6, 2020, episode of “Start Here,” ABC News’ daily news podcast.

Categories: ABC Columbia News Update (Second Row)