With winter approaching, my son is already asking about when it will snow, how many days until Christmas, and when we can start decorating. When we do decorate — after Thanksgiving, as it should be done! — one thing we do is hang paper snowflakes he and my wife made.
I’m not that good at the snowflake making. I want to make them fancy and beautiful, so I keep cutting more and more times to create the best design ever. But I usually overdo it. When I unfold it, it turns out I carved out too many places and it melts away into pieces.
I fear many Christians do the same thing when it comes to religious freedoms. We want to carve out a bunch of special exemptions for ourselves, but end up ruining the whole thing.
We’ve seen this attitude a lot during the coronavirus pandemic. And it’s a topic heating back up as more cities and states start implementing mask mandates, like Iowa did on Monday (Nov. 16).
Earlier in the pandemic, several churches sued local and state officials for meeting restrictions that limited how many people could gather for worship. And while some rules did go too far and target houses of worship, most of the rules appropriately treated religious gatherings like other gatherings.
That’s the balance we need. And it’s the balance in our First Amendment. Free exercise must be protected, so rules cannot shut down religious gatherings but allow other similar gatherings. But at the same time, we must not establish religion, so we shouldn’t allow religious groups to hold in-person gatherings that others cannot. To give special exemptions only to religious gatherings is to unconstitutionally favor religion over nonreligion.
Churches already find themselves subject to many regulations, like building and fire codes designed to protect people. We do not — and should not — get a religious exemption to those safety rules. And it doesn’t matter if grocery stores get to open, we’re not like a Costco.
The issue here is are we being treated like other similar events. This is why most courts — including the U.S. Supreme Court — upheld restrictions on in-person religious gatherings as long as the rules applied to all meetings, religious or otherwise.
The new front in this battle will be masks. Frankly, Christians should model the command to “love thy neighbor” and wear masks. Last Spring, the vast majority of churches halted in-person services before government rules required it. Likewise, we should lead the way in wearing masks regardless if our elected officials mandate it.
But I do believe many more government officials should issue mask mandates to save lives during this dangerous winter before the distribution of a vaccine. When they do, however, they should not carve out an unnecessary and indefensible religious exemption. If people are required to wear masks in public, that should include at religious worship services.
Yet, we are seeing these unhelpful exemptions that threaten the health of our communities just like my scissors do to those poor paper snowflakes. When Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds issued a statewide mask mandate on Monday, she included important exemptions like those with a medical condition impacted by mask wearing, individuals consuming food or drink at a restaurant, people giving a presentation for an audience, and someone communicating with a person who is deaf or hard of hearing.
But then she added this exemption: “Any person participating in a service at a spiritual or religious gathering.” She also exempted religious gatherings from her new restrictions limiting in-door gatherings to 15 people and outdoor gatherings to 30 people.
These religious exemptions could get people killed.
When we carve out unnecessary, unconstitutional, and dangerous religious exemptions, we put people at risk. Just consider a non-coronavirus story in the news lately.
The Kansas City Star investigated stories of abuse at a couple of Christian reform schools. But due to Missouri law providing a religious exemption to licensing, the state has no authority over these boarding schools. This religious exemption is wrong, constitutionally unnecessary, and dangerous to the very children the licensing rules are designed to protect. Just like religious exemptions to coronavirus-related rules.
Let’s not demand special “rights” that put people at risk. It’s time to put down the religious-exemption scissors.