Arkansas Democrat-Gazette

Balance faith and safety


Federal health officials have drafted detailed recommenda­tions that would guide the reopening of workplaces, subways, schools, restaurant­s and other facilities, of which just one is constituti­onally protected from government meddling: places of worship. The guidance is nonbinding, and White House officials, who are expected to issue a final version, have reportedly been at odds over whether it should mention faith-based communitie­s at all.

Relatively few faith-based organizati­ons have willfully ignored measures recommende­d by state and local authoritie­s to combat the pandemic. After New York City police dispersed a few thousand Hasidic mourners who crowded the streets in Brooklyn at a renowned rabbi’s funeral last week, the synagogue that organized the event acknowledg­ed that its plans to maintain social distancing had failed—and that the police action was justified.

Still, some religious leaders have already challenged existing guidelines or suggested they are prepared to do so by going ahead with in-person worship services. That is posing a test for officials and judges to determine where to draw the line between religious liberty and public health.

The trickiness of that line-drawing is reflected in the White House’s gingerly worded draft of strictures drawn up by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which says religious institutio­ns should “consider” certain guidelines. They include convening outdoor or parking lot worship, or, if services are held indoors, separating congregant­s by at least six feet, encouragin­g them to wear face masks and providing adequate ventilatio­n.

It is equally true that the First Amendment cannot negate government’s paramount duty to protect the lives of citizens under its jurisdicti­on. Churches, synagogues, mosques and other faith-based institutio­ns are not self-contained communitie­s. Their congregant­s may interact with neighbors, friends, lovers, grocery store personnel—and, if they get sick, health-care workers. A community’s right to safety and health in the face of a potentiall­y mortal threat cannot be collateral damage in an absolutist interpreta­tion of constituti­onal protection­s.

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