It is a fundamental aspect of constitutional law and historic American practice that no government may tell citizens how to worship. How one worships is a sacred duty that our laws and traditions have reserved entirely to the individual’s conscience, completely outside of the bounds of government interference.
Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb, however, has decided that this natural right secured in both the Indiana and national constitutions is something he is allowed to waive. Yesterday afternoon, he demanded that churches perform services according to his edicts or be subject to government punishment.
His requirements are not only unconstitutional because they trespass on the constitutionally secured individual right to worship, they are discriminatory because they place restrictions on churches that do not apply to other organizations, groups of people, and establishments. The governor is telling Christians how worship must be done and with stricter rules than for all other public gatherings.
In addition to limiting church services to gatherings of 10 or fewer people, his administration made these edicts for the services themselves (emphasis added):
To continue safely serving their communities, faith institutions are directed as follows:
- Church buildings and other physical locations for worship should be closed.
- Livestream or other virtual services are best.
- The minimum number of necessary personnel should be used at all times for any services.
- Staff and volunteers who are not speaking should wear masks.
- Drive-in services may be conducted only under these conditions:
- Attendees must be inside vehicles at all times.
- Attendees should not interact physically with clergy, staff or participants in other vehicles.
- Vehicles should contain only members of a single household. Do not bring your neighbors or others outside of your household.
- Cars must be spaced the equivalent of every other parking spot or approximately 9 feet apart.
- No one may exit a vehicle at any time.
- Portable bathrooms are not allowed on the premises and no church facilities may be used by attendees.
- It is preferred that no communion be distributed.
- In instances when communion is distributed, only prepackaged communion may be used and must be prepared and distributed in a manner that meets food safety standards.
The following individuals who are vulnerable and at higher risk for illness should not attend:
- Persons who are 65 years and older.
- Those who have severe underlying medical conditions, like heart or lung disease or diabetes.
- Individuals who are sick.
The parts in bold are particularly egregious ones that prevent and inhibit sacramental worshippers from the most important parts of their religious services — namely, the physical presence of God himself in the sacrament of Christ’s true body and blood.
To make things worse, the governor’s edict came one business day before the height of the church year, Easter, allowing for basically zero possibility of legal redress. This timeframe also gives clergy virtually no time to be able to comply while still offering communion this high holy weekend, as they would have to procure in one day single-serve communion elements if they didn’t already use them.
For religious reasons, many serious churches do not use prepackaged, individually wrapped food for the sacrament. They neither have such supplies nor are inclined to use them even if available. In other words, the governor decided he is allowed to ban the most serious Christians from the sacrament on the holiest days of the year.
Even if you do not believe as these Christians do, you should be alarmed at this precedent for government deciding what kind of worship is allowed. If government can do this to some people, it can do it to you.
This is all also not medically necessary to save lives. Indiana’s own projections show its medical resources are nowhere near becoming in short supply, even during the supposed “peak” of infection due in a few days. The state in fact has many excess ICU beds and ventilators.
At least 36 of the state’s many rural counties have 10 or fewer cases of coronavirus, yet the governor shut down all their churches as if they are as risk-prone as Indianapolis, the state hotspot. And Indianapolis’s case numbers, the largest in the state, are still 0.1 percent of their approximately 2 million population.
Outside of Indianapolis, hospitals are empty and some are laying off staff. The number of serious worshippers who prize the sacrament so much that they would attend tiny services to partake of it for Easter is miniscule and would not affect these overall projections.
There is no medical or public health reason to ban churches from their own religious activities within the same parameters that apply to other organzations, such as the 10-person limit. Even that limit in Indiana has been discriminatorily applied against religious worshippers. It still does not apply to places like grocery stores, which are allowed unlimited numbers of shoppers.
The state has decided that religious practice is not “essential” during an “emergency.” That is not the state’s decision to make.
That’s why these practical matters are also completely beside the point. No government official has any legitimate authority to tell Christians how Jesus’s body and blood must be prepared or served. That is individuals’ religious prerogative. Christians have historically never allowed any secular government to dictate our religious practices, even during pandemics. And this religious prerogative is secured by Indiana’s state constitution and the U.S. Constitution.
“All people shall be secured in the natural right to worship ALMIGHTY GOD, according to the dictates of their own consciences,” says Indiana’s state constitution. “No law shall, in any case whatever, control the free exercise and enjoyment of religious opinions, or interfere with the rights of conscience” (emphasis added).
The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution reads, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.” The Supreme Court has interpreted this very broadly to preclude government infringement on religious exercise, especially in worship settings.
Many in our government and society have decided that nothing is more important than physical health in the case of the coronavirus, even though we have never applied this exclusive standard to anything ever before. If we did, we would all be shut in our houses forever, for doing this would also prevent transmission of the flu to the sick and elderly and massively slow deadly road accidents, the death tolls for which are still far higher than for coronavirus.
Some people believe that there are more important things than physical health. Freedom. Protecting the nation’s poor and its future by not destroying our economy and tax base that uphold myriad already strained social welfare programs. Worship. Christians especially have historically placed obedience to God above their physical safety and very lives. We are in fact commanded to do so. For us, “to die is gain.” This elevation of health above all else has quickly become a competing god.
Indiana’s governor is demanding that the people of his state worship health and political power instead of Jesus Christ. It was behavior like this that occasioned the Pilgrims’ departure for the country that became the United States.
But where else can serious religious believers go now? Where will we find redress for our grievances against a state that has decided religion is nonessential during national emergencies for which the evidence is still not matching the claims? Do enough Americans care about prioritizing conscience above government to secure our rights any longer? Do enough Christians?
New info from lawyers: @GovHolcomb's religious restrictions were in a statement attached to an executive order w/o the restrictions. This misled the public about what is permitted while trying to protect his butt from religious discrimination lawsuits. https://t.co/WjAd0GkJfh
— Joy Pullmann (@JoyPullmann) April 10, 2020
As far as people can tell based on the actual executive order text, yes. Although his statement was still an official statement that comprised religious discrimination and I suspect it's legally actionable. Just not before Easter.
— Joy Pullmann (@JoyPullmann) April 10, 2020
This article has been updated since publication.