“Feeding the body requires teams of people to work together in physical spaces, but churches can feed the spirit in other ways.” Thus spake the Seventh Circuit US Court of Appeals last week in the case of Elim Romanian Pentecostal Church and Logos Baptist Ministries v. Pritzker. This ruling, which upheld the arbitrary 10-person limit imposed by the Governor of Illinois on church attendance, as usual condescendingly relegates “faith-based groups” to their own “barely essential” ghetto.
Since when is it the job of the Government to declare that churches “can feed the spirit in other ways” than those their beliefs prescribe? The Catholic Church teaches that the Real Presence of Christ is contained in the Blessed Sacrament, which we receive at Mass and which is reserved in the tabernacles of our churches. For one who truly believes this, few things are as necessary as being in God’s presence, especially when we consider that this life is shorter than a sneeze in comparison with eternity. Yet how easy for the unbeliever, or the lukewarm, to say that we ought to content ourselves with a digital representation on our screens at home for an unlimited amount of time.
At the center of this controversy is the arbitrary recommendation by the CDC (which, by the way, I can’t find anywhere on the CDC’s website, and this number has changed constantly over the past few months) that gatherings be limited to 10 people or less. It would seem that this virus has such well-developed situational awareness that it can suddenly become more potent in the presence of an 11th individual.
In his executive order of April 30th, Governor Pritzker bound religious services to this strict limit, while allowing grocery stores and other essential services to operate with a certain percentage of their typical capacity. (Note: Pritzker later rescinded this limit, but reserved the right to reinstate it if he felt conditions required it; thus the case was not dropped.) The Seventh Circuit Court ruled that this limit was applied fairly and without discrimination against First Amendment rights to free exercise of religion.
The main basis of the Court’s opinion rests upon their classification of religious services as being more comparable to concerts, lectures, theater performances and choir rehearsals, than they are to grocery stores or warehouses. This differentiation is based on Chief Justice Roberts’ opinion in South Bay United Pentecostal Church v. Newsom, in which he asserts that in the latter examples (i.e. grocery stores, etc.), “people neither congregate in large groups nor remain in close proximity for extended periods.”
Clearly, Chief Justice Roberts has never stood in the checkout line at his local Costco Warehouse.
Instead, the court insists that religious services are far more comparable to concerts and theater performances, because in these venues, “speech and singing feature prominently and raise risks of transmitting the virus.” In fact, they point out that religious services have fared far better than these secular gatherings, which have not been permitted to reopen.
Where these comparisons break down, unfortunately, is in one very crucial place: it is easy to deem concerts, lectures and theater performances unnecessary, since they are elective and not crucial for the sustaining of life, whereas grocery stores and pharmacies are clearly indispensable. In fact, this ruling allows that risks are involved in any activity outside the home, and therefore these risks must be balanced against the necessity of the activity. They correctly assert that it would be unthinkable to close down supermarkets simply because they carry some risk. But because they have classified religious services as belonging to a less necessary category of public functions, the risk/reward ratio does not meet the standard of grocery stores. This is nothing more than a judgment call made by those who view religion as merely an extracurricular activity. Isn’t it a form of religious discrimination to disallow that for some, it is far, far more than this? I shop for groceries maybe twice a week, but I go to church every day.
And is a house of worship really a greater risk than the local Costco warehouse, as this court asserts? They say that in churches, the singing and talking increases the respiratory droplets released into the air. OK, well, I try to go to Costco as seldom as possible, but that means when I do go, I need to stock up. This entails pushing a very large, heavy cart a mile or more around the store, trying not to run into other people who have a special habit of always stopping right in front of you, just as you have finally built up a head of steam pushing your 200lb cart. Are you going to tell me that all that huffing and puffing doesn’t release clouds of respiratory droplets into the air? Nor is there any rule limiting talking…I see people gabbing it up there just like anywhere else.
What about the fact that the jars of pasta sauce, or that bag of almonds, or that case of toilet paper may very well have been touched, breathed on, picked up and put down by any number of people, who most likely were not wearing gloves, and have touched who-knows-how-many surfaces (or their face) before touching that product you are now bringing home? And then consider the fact that the checkout guy is wearing gloves…but he doesn’t change them in between customers. So he probably has touched every single item in the carts of the last 25-50 people with those gloves. Isn’t that several hundreds of times more risky than going into a church and only touching one pew that was disinfected after the last person touched it?
And while the courts wring their hands over the idea that in churches, large numbers of people congregate for up to an hour at a time, the last time I checked, 400 people were allowed to be inside my Costco at a time…and I don’t recall there being any time limit for you to leave the store. Even when I bring my son along to help and I try to “speed shop,” I’ve never managed to complete a Costco run in under 45 minutes. And why are 400 people allowed? Because the store is enormously gigantic. Can you imagine how unbelievably inconvenient it would be if they only let 10, or 25, or even 50 people in at a time? People would be furious! But we are supposed to accept such an arbitrary limit for church services…
…Because no matter what, the perception continues to persist that churches are more dangerous than supermarkets, and they just aren’t as essential.
We cannot rest on our laurels now that most churches are open. Our work is not done. The “second wave” narrative was built in to this crisis from day one, so we need to make our motto “fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.” Don’t assume that this won’t happen again.
To all of you reading this, then, here is your homework: start thinking and planning ahead now. Talk to your fellow parishioners. Be wise as serpents and gentle as doves.
What will you do if they try to shut down our churches again?