Tag archives: Health Care

California Is Fining Churches for Using Common Sense

by Kaitlyn Shepherd

September 4, 2020

Even though the First Amendment clearly protects religious liberty, California continues to stymie churches’ efforts to reopen amidst the coronavirus pandemic.

On August 28, Governor Newsom announced a new statewide reopening plan, which replaced the previous county monitoring list. Under the new system, each county will be classified under one of four tiers. Each tier has a corresponding color that designates the county’s coronavirus risk level, which is based on the number of new coronavirus cases per day and the percentage of positive tests. Purple counties (widespread risk level) have more than seven new cases per day (per every 100,000) and more than eight percent positive tests. Red counties (substantial risk level) have four to seven new cases per day (per every 100,000) and five to eight percent positive tests. Orange counties (moderate risk level) have one to 3.9 new cases per day (per every 100,000) and two to 4.9 percent positive tests. Yellow counties (minimal risk level) have less than one new case per day (per every 100,000) and less than two percent positive tests.

Unfortunately, California’s new system fails to adequately prioritize the First Amendment rights of its churches and congregations. As of the Governor’s announcement on Friday, 38 of the state’s 58 counties (approximately 87 percent of the population) were in the highly restrictive purple tier. In these counties, churches are not allowed to hold indoor services. In red counties (currently nine counties), churches may hold indoor services, but they may only admit up to 25 percent of their building’s capacity or 100 people, whichever is fewer. Churches in orange counties (currently nine counties) may also hold indoor services but must limit attendance to 50 percent of building capacity or 200 people, whichever is fewer. Churches in yellow counties may admit up to 50 percent of their building’s capacity, but only two counties, Modoc and Alpine Counties, are currently classified under this tier. According to industry guidance (current as of July 29), all churches have been ordered to “discontinue indoor singing and chanting activities.”

In addition to statewide restrictions preventing churches from resuming in-person services, California churches are also facing opposition at the local level. Los Angeles County’s Grace Community Church resumed in-person services on July 26. After the County threatened the church with civil and criminal penalties for continued violations of the County’s prohibition on indoor worship services, the church filed a lawsuit against Governor Newsom, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, and other public officials. The County tried—and failed—four times to obtain court orders that would force the church to cease holding in-person services. On August 28, in another attempt to prevent the church from reopening, the County “terminat[ed] the church’s lease on a large portion of [its] parking lot.”

Grace Community Church is not alone in its struggle to reopen. In Ventura County, a judge held Godspeak Calvary Chapel and its pastor, Rob McCoy, in contempt of court. He fined the church $3,000 for holding indoor services in violation of a temporary restraining order that mandated compliance with the County’s prohibition on such services. And in Santa Clara County, North Valley Baptist Church has been fined over $52,000 for continuing to hold in-person services.

As churches in California and across the country consider reopening, they should make every effort to reopen safely by taking reasonable precautions and following common-sense guidelines. It is high time that California allows them to do so.

Kaitlyn Shepherd is a legal intern with Policy & Government Affairs at Family Research Council.

Is it Time for Churches to Reopen?

by David Closson

August 13, 2020

Since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, churches have had to make difficult decisions. Now, as states reopen, church leaders are deciding whether to reopen for public services or continue providing live-streams and smaller, home-based ministry. Considerations such as protecting the health of worshippers, the public witness of the church, the spiritual and physical needs of members, and complying with government mandates are all a part of the conversation.

Across the country, churches are coming to different conclusions on these questions. In California, Pastor Jack Hibbs decided to reopen his megachurch on May 31. In late July, John MacArthur and the elders at Grace Community Church in California decided that the state and local government had overstepped their authority and opened the church for worship on July 26. Three days later, the church received a letter from a Los Angeles County attorney demanding the church stop holding indoor worship services. The letter threatened fines and imprisonment for noncompliance. On August 12, in an effort to block the state from enforcing its regulations, Pastor MacArthur and Grace Community Church filed suit against California Governor Gavin Newsom and Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti. 

Conversely, J.D. Greear, pastor of Summit Church in North Carolina and current president of the Southern Baptist Convention, announced at the end of July that his church would not hold public worship services for the remainder of the year and instead will facilitate home-based gatherings. Greear cited the biblical admonition of neighbor-love as a reason for his decision.

Which approach is best? Should churches resume holding public worship services, or should they be cautious and wait to fully reopen?

Complicating matters are the strict reopening policies some overreaching state and local governments have ordered churches to follow. In some states, governors and mayors have appeared to single out churches for unfair treatment, and as a result, pastors in these areas are beginning to defy unconstitutional and overreaching mandates from the authorities. These incidents have raised questions about how pastors should respond to the government when it oversteps its authority. For example, can the government prohibit churches from holding worship services? Does a governor have the right to tell churches they can’t sing? More generally, what is the proper posture government should have towards religion? These questions have prompted further reflection on the theological rationale for civil disobedience.

How Churches Have Responded to the Pandemic

Before answering the question of how churches should navigate reopening amid a pandemic, it is important to recall how churches have responded thus far.

In early March, virtually all churches suspended in-person worship services and other activities in response to the pandemic. Throughout the spring and early summer, churches almost universally complied with government mandates. This is important to remember, especially considering the media’s hostile and misleading reporting about churches. For example, on July 9, the New York Times published an article with the alarming headline “Churches Open Doors, And the Virus Sweeps In.” Ominously, the writers reported, “More than 650 coronavirus cases have been linked to nearly 40 churches and religious events across the United States since the beginning of the pandemic.” While the report initially sounds distressing, an objective, clear-minded analysis of the total number of cases shows that 650 cases represent an incredibly small percentage of the overall confirmed 4.75 million cases of COVID-19 in the United States (as of July 9). While every case is serious, the disproportionate attention on cases emerging from churches betrays an underlining animus toward people of faith.

Churches were quick to follow initial guidance from federal, state, and local authorities. According to an April study by LifeWay Christian Resources, 99 percent of Protestant churches gathered for worship on March 1. By March 29, only seven percent were still meeting. Notably, most churches ceased in-person gatherings before most states instituted stay-at-home orders (only nine states had stay-at-home orders as of March 23; by then, 90 percent of churches had adopted the CDC’s non-binding recommendation to suspend in-person gatherings). Therefore, anyone arguing that churches were obstinate or unwilling to obey the governing authorities from the outset of the pandemic is wrong. With very few exceptions, pastors across the country followed the Bible’s teaching in Romans 13 to honor the governing authorities.

Constitutional and Legal Considerations: The Unequal Treatment of Churches

Churches have served their members and local communities in creative ways throughout the spring and early summer—including live-streams and “Drive-In” services. However, now that their respective states have reopened, many churches have resumed or wish to resume in-person meetings and services. But churches in some states and localities have been ordered by the governing authorities not to reopen, despite implementing health and safety measures consistent with CDC guidance. What are we to make of the legal restrictions and gathering bans being imposed on churches?

According to the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, as of July 27, worship services are prohibited or currently subject to unequal treatment (compared to nonreligious activities) in six states (California, Nevada, Washington, Maine, New Jersey, and Connecticut). Another 14 states have broad but equally applicable restrictions that limit churches’ ability to gather for worship or other activities.

Many of these restrictions are likely unconstitutional under the First Amendment’s Free Exercise Clause, which generally bars government from discriminating against religious entities in its policies and practices. For example, Nevada churches—regardless of size—are prohibited from admitting more than 50 people. Meanwhile, Nevada casinos can admit 50 percent of their maximum occupancy, allowing thousands of people inside. One church, Calvary Chapel, sued the state but was denied injunctive relief by the U.S. Supreme Court in a 5-4 decision. In his dissent, Justice Neil Gorsuch quipped, “In Nevada, it seems, it is better to be in entertainment than religion.” Justice Brett Kavanaugh, also in dissent, added, “COVID–19 is not a blank check for a State to discriminate against religious people, religious organizations, and religious services.”

In California, two-thirds of the state’s 58 counties are on a “county monitoring list.” Churches in these counties are not allowed to hold indoor services. Churches in counties not on the monitoring list are only allowed to admit 25 percent of their building’s capacity or up to a maximum of 100 people. As of July 29, California churches have been ordered to “discontinue indoor singing.” Notably, the same prohibition on chanting and singing did not extend to secular activities hosted indoors, including daycare centers, entertainment, schools, music, television and film production, and, most notably, public protests. In fact, Governor Newsom refused to ban protesters from chanting or singing, despite the risks posed by large gatherings in confined spaces.

Restrictions like those imposed on churches in California, Nevada, and elsewhere are even further problematic because the First Amendment gives religion a “privileged status” due to the societal good it provides and out of respect for the conscience of the citizenry. In his legal commentary regarding the First Amendment, Justice Joseph Story wrote, “It is the especial duty of government to foster, and encourage [religion] among all citizens and subjects.” The government is not to curtail religious exercise unless it demonstrates a compelling interest in doing so, and even then, the curtailment must occur in the narrowest way possible. This strong standard is in place in part because religion is something the American Founders knew ought to be safeguarded. Religion undergirds our nation and provides a vibrancy that must be preserved.

The First Amendment puts religious activity in a special category, and requires that it be protected. As Justice Kavanaugh noted in the recent Calvary Chapel case, even in a pandemic, the U.S. Constitution does not allow for casinos to receive privileged treatment over churches. As Kavanaugh explained, unlike gambling, the free exercise of religion is explicitly protected by the Constitution, and state laws that reflect “an implicit judgment that for-profit assemblies are important and religious gatherings are less so,” violate the Constitution. In America, religious liberty is often referred to as our “first freedom” because it is foundational to our other freedoms. Craps and poker simply do not merit the same protection.

Theological Considerations: The Christian Response to Religious Liberty Violations

What is a proper Christian response to what appears to be blatant religious discrimination and an unjust usurpation of authority by several states? Although Scripture teaches that government is a legitimate, God-ordained authority, is there a different calculus that pastors and church leaders need to make if it is clear the government has transgressed its constitutionally and divinely prescribed authority?

In a word, yes. In Romans 13, Paul teaches that the governing authorities are responsible for maintaining societal order and keeping the peace. However, God has not granted the government jurisdiction over the doctrine, liturgy, or practice of the church; pastors and elders, not magistrates, have been entrusted with this authority. In fact, there is biblical precedent for not obeying rulers who overstep their authority. When the corrupt religious authorities in Jerusalem ordered the apostles to stop preaching, Peter responded, “We must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29). Christians should honor the governing authorities as long as they are operating within their God-ordained role, but if the government is defying higher authority by imposing unconstitutional requirements on churches that want to reopen, pastors should seriously consider moving forward with plans to reopen their churches as safely as possible.

The roles of the church and state are complicated by the unique circumstances of a global pandemic. However, six months into the pandemic, we are faced with another type of health crisis. Experts are now warning of a mental health crisis due to the fear and anxiety sparked by the virus. According to preliminary data, depression, substance abuse, PTSD, drug overdoses, and suicide are all on the rise. A phenomenon that health experts refer to as a “shadow pandemic” is following the virus, manifesting itself in a variety of serious mental health concerns. For example, in Fresno, California, suicides were 70 percent higher in June this year compared to last year. According to the medical examiner’s office in Cook County (Chicago area), there have already been 58 suicides this year compared to 56 for all last year. And finally, the National Alliance on Mental Illness HelpLine has seen a 65 percent increase in calls and emails since March. Mental health experts have cited economic stress, social isolation, and, importantly, reduced access to church and worship services as factors driving this trend. Considering these factors, it is very reasonable to question whether the state and local governments truly have a compelling interest to impose on religion in the way they have.

How to Safely Reopen Your Church

Each church should ask themselves: What are the spiritual and practical consequences of remaining closed? What is the cost of only reopening a fraction of our outreaches and ministries?

Of course, in places where the virus has inflicted significant damage, churches should be wise and exercise good judgment. But most churches likely should move toward reopening, with safety precautions in place. This is true in states like California and Nevada, where churches appear to have been treated poorly with no justifiable reason. Churches within these states should continue to press their case—both at the local level and with the Department of Justice—that their constitutional rights are being violated. Constitutionally and theologically, churches have the right to continue the work they’ve been called to do. It is critical to our democracy that the government recognize and proactively protect the vital role religion plays in society. The pandemic does not alter this principle. As seen by the mental health epidemic, the need for the spiritual support of the church is only enhanced in the coronavirus era. It seems increasingly clear that by not opening, congregations and communities are at risk from other maladies besides the coronavirus.

Finally, safely reopening churches will require pastors and church leaders to exercise courage and faith, especially in areas where government officials have demonstrated hostility toward them. But Scripture reminds us that it is precisely for these moments that God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control (2 Tim. 1:7). According to Ohio State Representative Jena Powell, this is exactly what we need from our church leaders today. As Powell explained, “Right now, we need pastors with courage to stand up against government overreach, which is blatantly usurping the power that God has given to His church alone. We need pastors who are unafraid to boldly follow the commands of Scripture, and lead their churches in discipleship, evangelism, and serving their neighbors. I’m grateful for the many pastors who are shepherding well and hope more follow their example.”

To help churches safely reopen, Family Research Council has released a resource titled Guidelines for Reopening Your Church, which outlines the best sanitation practices advised by the CDC. It also provides guidance on other precautions churches can take, such as providing masks for those who attend services, ways to hygienically collect tithes and offerings, tips for administering the ordinances such as the Lord’s Supper, ideas for seating configurations, and ways pastors can set the tone for their congregations.

For further discussion about reopening churches and how Christians can think about responding to overreaching government authorities, listen to my recent interview with Tony Perkins on Washington Watch. And don’t forget to take advantage of all of FRC’s COVID-19 and The Church Resources.

Kaitlyn Shepherd, a legal intern with Policy & Government Affairs at Family Research Council, contributed legal research for this blog.

During the Pandemic, the Trump Administration Is Continuing to Protect Religious Freedom

by Connor Semelsberger, MPP , Jeremy Pilz

July 22, 2020

Yesterday, the Trump Administration announced further steps to protect religious freedom during the coronavirus pandemic. The Office for Civil Rights (OCR) at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) announced the resolution of two recent complaints filed against hospitals for infringing on religious freedom.

in June 2020, OCR received a complaint from a woman named Susanna Marcus, alleging she had requested a visit from a priest for her critically injured husband, Sidney Marcus. However, Prince George’s Hospital Center of the University of Maryland Medical System (UMMS), the hospital where Sidney Marcus was admitted, denied the request. In late May 2020, Susanna and Sidney Marcus were involved in major car accident. Due to the nature of Sidney’s injuries, the couple was separated, and Sydney was placed in the intensive care unit. As a result of Sidney’s continued decline in health, Susanna requested a visit from a local priest for prayer at the hospital. The priest, however, was turned away by the hospital, based on a visitor exclusion policy adopted in response to COVID-19, despite being willing to wear any necessary personal protective equipment. In partnership with the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS), OCR provided technical assistance to the hospital based on federal guidance which provides that “facilities must ensure patients have adequate and lawful access to chaplains or clergy.” Following this action by OCR, Prince George’s Hospital Center came into compliance with the federal guidance and granted Sidney Marcus’s request to freely exercise his religion by allowing the Catholic priest to visit and administer the sacraments of Holy Communion and Anointing of the Sick to him.

This is significant because it concerns the ability of clergy to continue to operate and function during the coronavirus, something the administration made sure was included in nationwide guidance issued by the Department of Homeland Security. President Trump should be commended for ensuring clergy and pastors can continue to operate in this way and serve their communities during the coronavirus.

That same month, OCR also received a complaint from a medical student who was participating in rotations at the Staten Island University Hospital (SIUH) in New York City. As a part of their response to COVID-19, SIUH temporarily suspended medical student rotations at the hospital. To return to rotation, SIUH required students to wear N95 respirator masks while assisting patients. As a result, SIUH informed one student that he would need to shave his beard if he wanted to return to his rotation. In accordance with the tenets of his religion, this student has not shaved his beard. HHS then stepped in to provided technical assistance to the hospital, and ultimately, they granted the student an accommodation to wear alternative protective equipment in the hospital so that he would not have to shave his beard.

These actions by the Trump administration may seem like small regulatory resolutions, but what they show is a consistent and concerted effort by this administration to protect religious freedom for all Americans. Everyone’s ability to practice their faith must be protected, and the administration is accomplishing this in concrete ways with actions like what HHS did yesterday. This also demonstrates that in times of crisis like the one our country is facing now, this administration will not protect one civil liberty at the expense of another. From the onset of the pandemic, HHS and the Department of Justice have been diligent to enforce laws protecting everything from disability rights to the right churches have to freely worship. No matter the situation our country faces, the Office of Civil Rights at HHS is on duty, protecting the guard rails of civil rights like religious freedom.

If you have a been discriminated against by a healthcare provider or government agency for your religious beliefs, please visit hhs.gov/ocr to file a complaint.

Connor Semelsberger, MPP is the Legislative Assistant at Family Research Council.

Jeremy Pilz is a Policy and Government Affairs intern focusing on federal legislative affairs, with a concentration on pro-life issues.

The Media Attacks Churches for Getting PPP Loans, But Ignores Planned Parenthood

by Connor Semelsberger, MPP , Samantha Stahl

July 15, 2020

As reports began trickling in last week about which organizations received coronavirus relief funds, it became known that Planned Parenthood received at least $150 million in funds, and several businesses connected to Members of Congress also received funds. Despite this controversy over which organizations received relief funds, the media has singled out the church as being the most egregious recipient of them all.

The AP recently reported that the Roman Catholic Church lobbied the Trump administration to receive $1.4 billion in coronavirus relief funds and Reuters revealed that several evangelical churches with ties to the Trump administration also received funds. With targeted attacks on faith-based organizations, the media missed several marks about how the program operates and further demonstrates a basic misunderstanding of how religious institutions operate. 

The Media Ignores the Details

The Paycheck Protection Program (PPP), first passed in the CARES Act, is designed to grant forgivable loans to small businesses and nonprofit organizations specifically to keep employees on their employers’ payroll during the coronavirus pandemic. These loans are administered by the Small Business Administration (SBA), and because of that it has led to confusion that nonprofits including churches are not eligible. However, the legislation explicitly allows nonprofit organizations to be eligible for the program. The text of the legislation was not initially clear on whether religious nonprofits were eligible or not, so at the request of several Members of Congress, the SBA issued an FAQ document clearly stating that faith-based entities can receive PPP funds.

The program is also very clear on how the funds must be used for forgiveness eligibility. The funds must be used on payroll, mortgage payments, rent, or utilities to qualify for forgiveness; otherwise the funding acts as a normal loan complete with interest and other obligations. This ensures that the funds are directly used to help employees from being furloughed, and that funds are not used on expressly religious activities. Furthermore, this program is open to all faith-based entities regardless of religious affiliation. It does not provide special treatment for Christian or Jewish organizations; even the stridently atheist advocacy group Freedom From Religion Foundation received a PPP loan. This fact alone should help alleviate concerns that the government is somehow violating the establishment clause of the Constitution by unfairly favoring specific churches and religious groups.

The Unique Structure of Churches

However, the main point of contention comes with the affiliation rule that Congress included in the CARES Act. This rule was included so that small businesses or nonprofits that have the same ownership, management, finances, or identity of a larger organization will have their total employees counted together to exclude small organizations that may already have the necessary financial help from a larger umbrella organization. This is the provision which gave the SBA the authority to exclude Planned Parenthood from receiving PPP loans, yet it was not enforced, which lead Planned Parenthood to be given $150 million in funds. It’s also the same provision which some have argued should exclude churches which are affiliates of a larger entity like the Catholic Church.

However, this concern reveals a basic misunderstanding of the structure of religious organizations and has unfortunately led to attacks on churches for supposedly violating this rule. For the most part, churches affiliated with larger entities like the Southern Baptist Convention or the Catholic Church operate independently. They raise their own money, take out their own loans, pay their own utility costs, and hire and manage their own staff. In many respects, these churches operate as independent organizations to best serve their local community, resembling the operations of a small business. For example, within the Southern Baptist Convention—the largest Protestant denomination in America—each church is considered autonomous. This is a basic tenet of Baptist ecclesiology; churches can give a percentage of their undesignated receipts to their state convention to support missions and ministries through the Cooperate Program if they choose to, but are not punished or removed from the convention if they do not.

These considerations show that the media’s narrative on churches and the PPP program is not accurate, especially when it comes to churches that are connected to larger affiliate organizations for specifically religious reasons like directing religious teachings or assigning pastors to minister to specific churches. The SBA recognized this in their guidance for faith-based organizations applying for coronavirus relief funds. In fact, the SBA FAQs clearly applies the First Amendment to the program, noting:

If the connection between your organization and another entity that would constitute an affiliation is based on a religious teaching or belief or is otherwise a part of the exercise of religion, your organization qualifies for an exemption from the affiliation rules. For example, if your faith-based organization affiliates with another organization because of your organization’s religious beliefs about church authority or internal constitution, or because the legal, financial, or other structural relationships between your organization and other organizations reflect an expression of such beliefs, your organization would qualify for the exemption.

While it may seem like Planned Parenthood and large religious affiliate organizations like a Catholic diocese have a similar structure and both should be ineligible for PPP loans, only these faith-based institutions are eligible for the religious exemption that is consistent with constitutional and statutory religious freedom protections.

Religion as an Important Public Good

Churches have employees they must continue to pay during the pandemic just like any other for-profit business. In addition to taking care of their workers, churches must also pay interest on mortgages or rent for the space they use as well as utilities to keep the lights on. These requirements have been met by the churches that have lawfully been granted a PPP loan.

Moreover, it is important to realize that churches also play an essential role in ministering to people’s needs. With the shutdown of churches due to COVID-19, many of these mercy ministers have been affected. Outside of the government, the Catholic Church supplies a huge portion of the social services in America, serving millions of people who are suffering now more than ever. In response to the targeted reporting on churches receiving PPP loans, Archbishop Paul S. Coakley, chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ (USCCB) Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development, called the loans an “essential lifeline” for employees and their families. The PPP loans play an important part in the ability of churches to continue their support of their brothers and sisters in Christ, especially during this time of financial instability.

While it is understandable to raise concerns about certain organizations improperly applying for a PPP loan, media hit pieces like the AP article are nothing more than attacks on people of faith and religious organizations. Tragically, lies and falsehoods have a price; in the last few days as the mainstream media has singled out faith-based organizations in their reporting, religious statues have been vandalized and churches have been burned.   

Not only are attacks on churches lawfully applying for aid appalling, the comparative lack of media attention to the fact that Planned Parenthood improperly applied for the PPP loan is astounding. Planned Parenthood is not even remotely close to a small employer since its number of employees dwarf the 500-employee limit for eligibility for the PPP loan, yet they applied for and received millions of dollars in aid while also continuing to lobby for further financial assistance in future coronavirus relief legislation.

This whole situation makes it clear that the media and ruling elites of our country find churches and religious organizations, which often labor quietly for the common good for all of society, more abhorrent than abortion facilities designed specifically to end the lives of innocent human beings. Now is the time for the church and people of faith to stand for what is good and right and push back against a worldview which values the destruction of human life over the salvation of souls. 

Connor Semelsberger is the Legislative Assistant at Family Research Council.

Samantha Stahl is a Communications intern at Family Research Council.

What the Pandemic and the Protests Reveal About the Church’s Lost Moral Influence

by David Closson

July 9, 2020

Church leaders took to Twitter yesterday to respond to a New York Times article alleging churches are a “major source” of coronavirus cases, citing “more than 650 cases” linked to church gatherings. The article provides examples of church events and services that have been linked to the spread of the virus and insinuates that church leaders have been reckless in the way they’ve handled the crisis. However, as Christian leaders were quick to point out, the Times seems to misrepresent the magnitude of the problem.

For example, Hershael York, Dean of Southern Seminary and Senior Pastor at Buck Run Baptist Church noted in a tweet, “How many 1000’s of churches are meeting now? And the @nytimes finds 650 cases linked to only 40 religious institutions … and that is a ‘major source.’ Let’s put the stats in context, folks! Why this relentless obsession with churches?”

Philip Bethancourt, Senior Pastor at Central Church echoed his sentiment noting, “There are thousands of churches serving millions of people every week. Calling churches a ‘major source’ of coronavirus because of 650 cases seems like a major stretch to me. Churches are working hard to do what they can to be safe to attend.”

Are these church leaders right to cry foul on the unfair treatment by the New York Times? Here are the facts about COVID cases in the US and church compliance.

In context, these 650 cases have been linked to 40 church organizations since the beginning of the pandemic. In America, there have been a total of 3,131,411 cases total confirmed since February 15th, with national cases amounting to 40,000 in a single day as recently as June 27th

Churches in America have been extremely compliant with the shutdown orders and reopening guidelines. There is no doubt that any gathering of individuals poses some level of risk, particularly if a church ignores basic social distancing guidelines. However, research shows that over 90 percent of pastors and church leaders complied with shutdown orders in March, and many continue to be abundantly cautious as they collaborate to create complex re-opening strategies.

The New York Times Startling Inconsistency

So, what can account for the New York Times attitude toward church reopening, and their claim that churches represent a “major source” of coronavirus cases? On this point it is worth noting the newspaper’s coverage of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests. With as many as 26 million people participating in the protests as of July 3rd, the New York Times did not seem nearly as concerned about the health hazards posed by these massive demonstrations. To their credit, one recent piece on July 6th acknowledges that many public health officials had to “grapple” with supporting this particular expression of democracy (as opposed to anti-lockdown protests or in-person religious services), after more than 1,300 public health officials signed a letter May 30 in support of the rallies. The article also acknowledged that these protests endanger “tens of thousands” of Americans who choose to attend. This number of endangered Americans, of course, is a stark contrast to the 650 cases reportedly tied to the reopening of churches.

There is an undeniable inconsistency in the mainstream media to downplay one expression of civil society and its risk to public health while highlighting another. For one, studies to identify the tie between BLM protests and COVID cases are few and far between. In fact, COVID contact tracing workers in New York were instructed not to ask anyone testing positive for COVID whether they attended a demonstration. Recently, some in the mainstream media and government have begun calling for an investigation into the connection between the protests and the COVID uptick. So far, most have claimed no connection or one that is “hard to identify” due to the simultaneous general public re-opening and demographics of protestors. The UK Health Secretary was recently faced with accusations that Britain was a “racist country” after he warned about the risks of the protests, saying that while he supports the protests the “virus itself doesn’t discriminate.” Cancellations on outdoor Fourth of July gatherings just this past weekend (the indoor/outdoor distinction is commonly made when defending BLM protests) further underscore the inconsistencies.  

The media’s predisposition against churches compared to BLM protests is hard to deny. A quick search on Google shows 10 articles articulating reasons why closing churches is necessary for the public health; a similar search for articles questioning BLM protests and its risks lends little results—only a resounding defense of the protestors’ motivations and arguments for their necessity. Given these trends, it is little wonder that the “connection” with churches and COVID cases would be an area of interest to the mainstream media, or that evangelical Christians would have trouble trusting the resulting information.

Those who do acknowledge the health hazard of the BLM protests are careful to weigh that with the gravity of the events and message that they convey. Tara Haelle writes with Forbes that the protests are saving lives and for many, protesting represents an “essential” activity. Systematic racism itself is said to be a “public health emergency” when one tracks the impact of racism on the health of minorities. Furthermore, we are told that protestors are taking “calculated risks” for a greater good.

Undoubtedly, the conversations prompted by George Floyd’s tragic death are important, and Christians need to be active participants in discussions about race relations and police reform. It is notable, however, that the language used to justify this public health risk stands in stark contrast from that which is used to describe worship services. 

Cultural Ideals Drive Necessity, and the Church Isn’t a Part of Those Ideals. This Must Change.

Ideals and ideology are shaping the way that America views the re-opening of their country, and it will continue to shape the way we move forward as a country. It used to be that the church was viewed as a place that did transformative work in the spiritual, physical, and mental health of individuals of all races and backgrounds. The church, too, has long been held as an essential function of democracy. The church and its freedom to gather, within reason, is a hallmark of the American republic, as it is a right so infrequently enjoyed by other nations. 

If that is the case, what accounts for the double standard and for why worshipers are viewed with suspicion by mainstream media outlets like the New York Times? Why are churches the target of so much scrutiny? One reason is that the church has lost its moral influence. Another is the precipitous decline in those who hold a biblical worldview and who see the church as the conveyor and guardian of morality. Society no longer shares the values of the church and thus no longer thinks the church has anything of importance to say to the pressing issues of our time. This is why the media and secular culture are so quick to dismiss the church and relegate it to the category of “nonessential.” In fact, this was evident in the closing paragraph of the NYT article when they quoted a pastor who stated his belief that God was sovereign over his life in the midst of the virus. The Times of course appears to jump at the opportunity to frame the pastor as a simpleton, walking with blind faith and bereft of science and reason.

Why does the New York Times article not revere churchgoers who would attend their church and grow spiritually as those taking “calculated risks” and “saving lives?” If the church was seen as a serious moral stakeholder in the public square, these would be the articles written about church re-openings. More than something to mourn, this truth should be an eye-opening moment for American churches. Their leadership—and the uniqueness of the life and world-transforming gospel that they alone can bring—is needed more than ever in the public square. The church has true answers to bring to the questions that global crises evoke, and it should not be modest about the urgency of its message or the life-saving quality of its gospel.

For the Fourth Time, HHS Defends the Elderly and Disabled

by David Closson , Laura Lee Caum

June 29, 2020

After weeks of significant societal upheaval, there is finally some good news out of Washington D.C. On June 26, the Office for Civil Rights (OCR) at the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) announced it had resolved a complaint against Tennessee after the state updated its medical triage plans to ensure that the elderly and disabled are not discriminated against in the event of scarcity or high demand for medical resources.

This is OCR’s fourth resolution with a state regarding disability discrimination since their March 28 bulletin reminding states of their responsibility to abide by civil rights laws that prohibit discrimination in the provision of health care services during the coronavirus pandemic. Previously, OCR resolved similar cases with Alabama, Connecticut, and Pennsylvania.

Commenting on the resolution, Roger Severino, OCR’s Director, said, “We commend Tennessee for updating its policies to ensure that hospitals do not deny life-saving care during a crisis based on stereotypes about disabilities or other impermissible factors. Our civil rights laws reflect the principle that we are all created with equal dignity and worth.”

Prior to this decision, concerns were raised about Tennessee’s emergency health care guidance, specifically that those with advanced neuromuscular disease, metastatic cancer, traumatic brain injury, dementia, and other disabilities could be excluded from use of a ventilator in times of scarcity. The HHS determined this was in violation of numerous health laws, including Section 1557 of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.

The June 26 resolution between HHS and Tennessee should be applauded for its recognition of the human dignity of the elderly and disabled. All Americans, but especially Christians, should be grateful for this announcement because it affirms one of the most basic tenets of the biblical worldview which is that all people are made in God’s image and possess inherent value and dignity. Laws or health care plans that allocate resources based on a perceived quality of life devalue one’s fundamental right to life and ought to be rejected.

This bold action by the Office for Civil Rights continues a pattern of respecting and protecting life by the Trump administration. Since his inauguration, President Trump and his administration has consistently defended human rights at home and abroad. This is especially seen in the administration’s defense of the rights of the unborn. For example, The Office of Civil Rights at HHS alone has already enforced conscience protection laws in California to ensure that health care plans are not required to provide abortion coverage, and in Vermont to protect the conscience rights of a nurse who was forced to participate in performing abortions. In 2019, the administration ensured that Title X family planning funds do not include abortion providers. Then in 2020 President Trump spoke at the March for Life rally, becoming the first sitting president to ever do so.

The decision on June 26 by HHS is the latest example of the administration’s commitment to protecting all Americans, regardless of age, disability, or other subjective factors. All Americans should be grateful for this resolution, and hope it sends a clear message to the other states that when it comes to human dignity, cutting corners is not an option.

David Closson is FRC’s Director of Christian Ethics and Biblical Worldview.

Laura Lee Caum is a Communications intern at Family Research Council.

What is the Role of the Church Amidst Troubling Times?

by Samantha Stahl

June 18, 2020

According to Scripture, Christians have a responsibility to share the hope of the gospel (Mat. 5:14-16). Jesus made this clear in the Great Commission when He commissioned His disciples to spread His message to the ends of the world. Today, Americans are experiencing trying times. Amidst a virus that is frightening people and tearing apart economies, church celebrations that remain suspended, and riots that put vengeance as the answer to cases of unjust police violence, it can be hard to see God working. However, through the darkest points in history, God has raised up people of strong faith. Right now, God is calling upon the church to lead His people, and to not be silent. The church can give answers to today’s questions of how to proceed.

As controversial as it may be today, Christians are called to bear witness to the truth. This is not easy, but it is important to allow oneself to be guided by what is right and not by fear. Prayer is greatly needed for leaders and for the community. Even when it seems God is not immediately answering our prayers, we are still called to pray (1 Tim. 2:2). Leaders of the church must not be silent and must continue to speak bold messages of hope and support during these times.

As we’ve seen throughout the last three months, Christians should continue to serve those in their communities by offering them encouragement. Serving one’s community can be as simple as making a call or writing a letter, or something practical such as running an errand or safely praying with them. The best way to be a light of God is to be a light to others in His name. For a list of resources including ideas to serve your community, check out FRC’s church resource page at frc.org/church.

Christians must also not be silent during these times, especially as churches are still closed. When the church cannot worship together, the whole Christian community and beyond is affected by a lack of sharing the gospel. Christ’s command to “proclaim the good news to the whole creation” is greatly hindered if Christians cannot come together to worship (Mark 16:15). Many have fallen and will fall into a spiritual slump due to months of being unable to gather for public worship. Peace and joy have been fading as violence and hate settles in among people. The world needs the church now more than ever as it is greatly feeling the lack of messages of hope and guidance previously brought by open churches. Christians must be able to again partake in the communal worship of God in order to best be a light for this world.

Christians can help America get through the violent riots and the ensuing destruction. This is accomplished specifically by supporting the good in people. Peaceful protests represent the proper use of American freedom. However, when violent riots ensue (which do not honor the memory of George Floyd and others unjustly killed), it becomes an abuse of freedom.

As Christians, speaking out with love in the face of anger will change the response to violence. An example of such Christian leadership can be found in the words of Rep. Mike Johnson (R-La.) during a recent Congressional hearing on police brutality, where he stated that everyone is made in the image of God, despite skin color. He called for a defense of the people upholding truth and justice, while not condoning those who obstruct those values. Elsewhere, many people have reached out to communities struck by violent riots, cleaning up the mess as best they can. For example, according to CNN, a truck driver in Houston, Texas named Brian Irving spent hours cleaning up after a riot destroyed parts of the city. Such examples of Christians living out the principles of their faith are shining beacons in these dark times, and they ought to be emulated. The church has a unique opportunity to bring these moments of good to light, and show the world there are indeed good people.

When the church is at work during a time of crisis, God does not fail to turn that work into something beautiful. Setting an example of prayer and peace in a time of pandemonium will help bring stability. Christians must rise together and bring the truth of Christ to a world that is searching for truth. God is calling the church to be that beacon of light for the world.

Samantha Stahl is Policy/Government Affairs intern at Family Research Council.

Families and Charitable Organizations: The Foundation of American Society

by Connor Semelsberger, MPP

June 17, 2020

This piece was originally published at NRB.org.

Churches and other charitable organizations have been on the front lines of the coronavirus response. A few examples are Samaritan’s Purse building a field hospital in New York City’s Central Park and churches hosting food drives and conducting coronavirus testing. One Alabama church tested 1,000 people in two days! Despite the active role these nonprofits have taken in meeting the health and economic needs of our country, they still rely on donations—at a time when many Americans face financial hardship due to job loss, limited working hours, or increased medical costs. Such hardships may lead to a decline in charitable donations. Thankfully, some leaders on Capitol Hill are championing the important role churches and charitable organizations play in helping local communities.

One way the tax code helps charitable organizations is through the charitable deduction. However when the 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act simplified and raised the standard deduction to $12,000, it caused many tax filers to take the standard deduction instead of itemizing their charitable contributions. Realizing this problem in the tax code, Congress recently passed the CARES Act, which allows charitable contributions up to $300 to be deducted above and beyond the standard deduction on annual tax returns. This new policy is a great first step in promoting charitable giving during the pandemic. But congressional leaders believe there is much more to be done.

Senator James Lankford (R-Okla.) has been the most vocal voice advocating for direct changes to the tax law to support both families and nonprofits. He summed this need up perfectly in a Joint Economic Committee hearing on charitable giving. “We have three safety nets in America. The family is the first safety net. Nonprofits are our second safety net and government is our third…The first two are essential and if the family collapses, nonprofits struggle to keep up and governments struggle to keep up.”

In May, Senator Lankford and Senator Angus King (I-Maine) co-authored a letter to Senate leaders, advocating for nonprofits, charities, and houses of worship in any future coronavirus relief bills. One of the specific proposals Lankford and King offered is raising the $300 charitable deduction limit in the CARES Act to one-third of the standard deduction. This would equate to $4,000 for individuals and $8,000 for married couples. Representative Mark Walker (R-N.C.) has taken a similar approach in the House of Representatives. His bill, the Coronavirus Help and Response Initiative Through the Year 2022 (CHARITY) Act, would expand the charitable deduction to one-third of the standard deduction until 2022.

Families and churches are the foundation of our society. They are, therefore, the societal institutions best-equipped to provide stability when America faces many health and safety challenges. When families and churches struggle, so does the rest of America. That is why the government needs to recognize and support these institutions and charitable organizations. As Sen. Lankford said, “it’s beneficial for us in our official policy and what we choose to do in the tax code to be able to create a tax code that is encouraging to families and that is encouraging to nonprofits.

Governments Are Allowing Unrestricted Protests. So Why Are Churches Still Restricted?

by Laura Lee Caum

June 11, 2020

Since March, churches all over America have suspended in person worship services to comply with social distancing guidelines meant to prevent the spread of COVID-19. For nearly three months, churches have adapted to alternatives including online services and drive-in services. Surprisingly, a few state and local governments punished those participating in drive-in services by handing out tickets. Despite the challenges, the vast majority of worshippers have abided by social distancing restrictions, longing for the days when they can worship together again.

The same cannot be said of many of the protestors in recent days. After the unjust death of George Floyd in Minnesota, many protestors flooded the streets demanding justice. However, these large gatherings of protestors were in direct violation of CDC guidelines. At the height of the protests, Minnesota’s Department of Health was still officially encouraging its citizens to go out only to “buy food, medicine, and other needed items.”

Since the mass protests, there has been a spike in new coronavirus cases in Minnesota. Violence has greatly increased. A number of businesses in Minnesota have been destroyed and one of their police stations was torched. Around the country, several policemen—both black and white— were assaulted and some even murdered while attempting to maintain order. Despite the public health risks of large protests, government officials throughout the country have allowed the protests to continue (and in some cases participated themselves). And while it is important to underscore the justifiable outrage over George Floyd’s death, the acquiescence of authorities to these protests while churches remain shuttered raises the question of a double standard.

In short, if governors allow thousands of protestors to march in cities around the country, when can churches have in-person services? The CDC has cleared churches to hold services in their buildings. The issue seems to be with some state governments who are explicitly discriminating against churches. One example is in Nevada where Governor Sisolak is restricting church gatherings to 50 or fewer people while permitting casinos and restaurants to open at 50 percent capacity; in some of the larger casinos this means allowing hundreds of people to gather at one time. According to these government mandates, church gatherings must abide by restrictions while secular businesses can serve many guests. Clearly, these decisions violate the religious freedom of worshippers.

Freedom of speech is a cherished principle that must include even unpopular views and opinions. If protestors are permitted to chant, “I can’t breathe,” churchgoers should be allowed to sing, “Amazing Grace.” Protestors should be free to peaceably exercise their First Amendment rights of free speech and assembly and churchgoers should be treated no differently.  

Any worshipper will readily admit that church in recent weeks has felt a little different. Church members do not wish to break the law or endanger anyone. They simply wish to worship together. Some outside the church may marvel or be confused about why Christians are so adamant about meeting for corporate worship. The reason is that for followers of Christ, gathering for worship is not a preference, but a command that Christians must obey. The writer of Hebrews says, “And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing.” Though the church is commanded to gather together, government restrictions in many places continue to prevent this from happening. So long as government restrictions are applied equally to all sectors of society, these orders should be followed. After all, Romans 13 teaches that government has been ordained by God. However, it is clear now that the government’s orders are not being applied equally as protestors have been permitted to voice their grievances and stage large gatherings without CDC health guidelines being enforced. Let us meet in the middle: allow protesters to voice their opinion while at the same time permitting church goers to worship together in person.

Finally, churches who dare to open are bending over backwards to abide by and even exceed government guidelines. Pastors are commissioned by God to care for those in their church. State governors should be assured that pastors will take care of their members just as well as a restaurant owner will take care of their guests. To help pastors care for their churches, FRC released a resource titled “Guidelines for Reopening Your Church.” If we are going to protect the right to freedom of speech for protestors, let us safeguard the freedom of religion for those who want to gather for public worship. Only when both free speech and freedom of religion are protected for all will we have a functioning and whole society.

Laura Lee Caum is a Communications intern at Family Research Council.

Can the Pandemic Help Renew Home and Family Life?

by Dan Hart

May 29, 2020

Amidst the coronavirus pandemic, a little-noted but interesting trend is occurring—home improvement stores like Lowe’s and Home Depot have seen their sales rise higher than expected as a result of people spending more time at home and deciding to take on new or long put-off projects around the house.

I can personally attest to this. My wife and I decided it would be great to raise our own chickens so we could have fresh eggs for our family and be more self-sufficient. We went about researching how to raise chickens and got five baby chicks, who are now two months old and are able to live outside. Our extra time at home has allowed us to devote more energy to our chicken project, which is now involving my retired parents and family friends who are all helping us build a chicken coop and put up fencing to protect them from predators.

All of this to say that the pandemic is leading myself and many around the country to think more about how we can cultivate our homes, which in turn can lead to new and perhaps unexpected projects that can draw our families closer together as we work with each other to accomplish them.

There is also something deeply satisfying about working with our hands to improve our homes. This reminds me of something profound recently written by John Cuddeback:

We have lost something today, but we can get it back. Our very humanity calls for living and working in our bodies, with natural things, regularly. This means all of us. We have been separated from our own humanity, from our proper homeland, and we are suffering, even if we have never known anything else.

I say we can ‘get it back’—not because we ourselves have necessarily had it before, but because it is our birthright. Our own ancestors had it; we need it; and we can still do it, even if differently, and by fits and starts.

It need not be the work of our profession, or work that makes money. It just needs to be real and regular, preferably in our home.

Each of us can make our daily lives more human by choosing tried and true forms of human work. Certain kinds of work have shown themselves to be rich and reliable as especially human modes of acting.

Here is a short list we might consider:

1. hand-crafting in natural substances: wood, stone, metal or fiber
2. caring for the earth, plants, or animals.
3. preparing and preserving natural foods
4. any aesthetic work with hand tools, such as drawing, painting, carving
5. Miscellaneous such as cutting, splitting, and burning wood for heat  

It seems to me that doing these kinds of projects by hand is intimately connected with family. When we share in these activities with our families and teach ourselves and our children to do them, we are not only helping our homes become more self-sufficient during uncertain times, we are also participating in a primal familial bonding and formative experience that has the great potential to increase love and unity amongst each other while at the same time building character.

Families in the modern age desperately need to share in this type of formative bonding with each other. As Yuval Levin has recently written, there is a distinct sense in which the breakdown of the traditional family structure in our time has contributed to a breakdown in character formation that is essential for an individual to become a healthy, thriving member of society. He writes:

…The family forms us by imprinting upon us and giving us models to emulate and patterns to adopt.

The family does all this by giving each of its members a role, a set of relations to others, a body of responsibilities, and a network of privileges. Each of these, in its own way, is given more than earned and is obligatory more than chosen. Although the core human relationship at the heart of most families—the marital relationship—is one we enter into by choice, once we have entered it that relationship constrains the choices we may make. The other core familial bond—the parent-child relationship—often is not optional to begin with, and surely must not be treated as optional after that. It imposes heavy obligations on everyone involved, and yet it plays a crucial role in forming us to be capable of freedom and choice.

In this sense, the institution of the family helps us see that institutions in general take shape around our needs and, if they are well shaped, can help turn those needs into capacities. They literally make virtues of necessities, and forge our weaknesses and vulnerabilities into strengths and capabilities. They are formative because they act on us directly, and they offer us a kind of character formation for which there is no substitute…  

One potential positive effect of the coronavirus pandemic is that it gives families an unexpected occasion to renew our focus on our home life and build strong, formative, and lasting bonds through shared home-cultivating activities. Let us not waste the opportunity.

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