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The Center for American Progress, a progressive public policy research group, published its own study of states it found to have enacted exemptions to stay-at-home orders on religious grounds, describing it as “an alarming trend”.
According to the group, Pennsylvania was the first to move, on 19 March when it enacted a clause that exempts the “operations of religious institutions” from its closure order on physical premises of “non-life sustaining businesses”.
Over the next five days, five more states – New York, New Jersey, Delaware, Louisiana, Ohio, Massachusetts, Michigan, New Mexico, West Virginia and Kansas – acted by including religious exemptions to varying degrees. For example, New Mexico banned gatherings of more than five people anywhere, with “churches, synagogues, mosques and other places of worship” among the exceptions. West Virginia’s order, meanwhile, adds specific wording to assure citizens that travel to and from a place of worship would also not be considered a violation.
The fact that religious groups can still hold gatherings in so many states does not mean all of them will do so. But there are prominent exceptions, such as the Florida pastor Rodney Howard-Browne, who has now decided to shutter his River at Tampa Bay church for this weekend’s Palm Sunday services anyway, and the Life Tabernacle church in Louisiana. Dozens of cases of coronavirus have been reported at a California megachurch.
“The ability to gather as people of faith is our first freedom. But as with other freedoms now cabined in the name of public safety, religious freedom must take a backseat, at least for now,” is the view of an editorial by three Canopy analysts, Robin Fretwell Wilson, Brian Smith and Tanner Bean.
“Now is not the time to stand on our rights. It is not the time to pursue contentious religious freedom claims in the courthouse. Instead, it is a time to lead by example, as so many congregations and people of faith have done.”