Jonathan Den Hartog on Religious Freedom in the Time of Coronavirus

Debates over the impact of shut-down orders on churches have produced dramatic flashpoints for religious freedom. Florida arrested megachurch Pastor Rodney Howard-Browne for continuing to hold services despite closure orders. The governor of Kentucky threatened to send state troopers to take down the license plate numbers of anyone who left their homes for an Easter service — even if they stayed in their cars with their windows up.

These kinds of cases reveal the need for a deeper understanding of religious liberty, that its full expression exists in two types, entailing seemingly contradictory ideas: Liberty is both the freedom from restraint as well as the freedom of restraint. It’s become apparent that many churches seek to defend one type of liberty in the quarantine orders, when they really should be holding onto both types.

The first type of liberty — the one some churches reached for publicly — is a legalistic, constitutional, and individualist liberty. Does the First Amendment guarantee the free exercise of religion, including public assembly? Indeed it does. Further, it protects religious bodies from being specifically singled out for limitations. This guarantee serves as an effective and necessary shield when executive orders specifically target churches. So, when the Governor of Kentucky specifically ordered an end to religious services — even drive-in services — it was appropriately struck down. Likewise, when the Mayor of New York threatened to close religious meetings “permanently” if they didn’t comply, observers recognized such bluster was unconstitutional.

Conceiving of liberty only in this legalistic manner, however, could lead churches astray. Some churches stayed open too long, becoming sites for disease spread. A few churches even flaunted their disobedience to general shut-down orders. The individualist approach emphasized the need to assemble, no matter the cost to congregants or the larger community.

In so doing, these churches and pastors are partaking in a cultural mindset that emphasizes individual rights above all. This rights-based outlook provides important protections for individuals and groups, but it is insufficient for a holistic witness.

Instead, that first view of liberty must be linked with a second positive and moral view of liberty, by which liberty gains robust meaning and becomes the mechanism to serve the common good. It turns out, there are plenty of resources for churches to nurture this second perspective.

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SOURCE: Christian Post, Jonathan Den Hartog