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Justices Flip The Script On COVID-19 Worship Bans in New York and California, But Top Health Official Urges Closures

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Editor’s note: The following article was reprinted with permission from ReligionUnplugged.com.

By Bobby Ross, Jr.

First New York.

Now California.

With the addition of a fifth, solidly conservative member — new Justice Amy Coney Barrett — the U.S. Supreme Court has flipped the script on months of legal battles over pandemic-era worship gatherings.

“It is time — past time — to make plain that, while the pandemic poses many grave challenges, there is no world in which the Constitution tolerates color-coded executive edicts that reopen liquor stores and bike shops but shutter churches, synagogues, and mosques,” Justice Neil Gorsuch wrote last week as the 5-4 court blocked New York from imposing strict attendance limits on religious services.

Related: Faith Vs. COVID-19: Restrictions Prompt Clashes Over Churches Reopening

And on Thursday, the court “sided with a California church protesting Gov. Gavin Newsom’s pandemic-related restrictions on indoor worship services,” noted the Washington Post’s Robert Barnes. The brief, unsigned order returned the issue to lower court judges and “suggests the state’s ban on indoor services is likely to fall,” reported the Los Angeles Times’ David G. Savage.

In San Francisco, Catholic Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone has complained that the city’s “treatment of churches is discriminatory and violates the right to worship,” as explained by the Catholic News Agency. For more details on the California battle, see Sacramento Bee writer Dale Kasler’s story this week on churches defying Newsom’s order.

In related news, the Deseret News’ Kelsey Dallas highlighted a clash over in-person classes in religious schools in Kentucky. And Boston.com’s Nik DeCosta-Klipa covered Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker’s concerns over “COVID-19 clusters stemming from religious gatherings.”

Here in my home state of Oklahoma, Gov. Kevin Stitt has refused to issue a statewide mask mandate that might help slow the spread of COVID-19. But he declared Thursday a day of prayer and fasting over the coronavirus, as reported by The Associated Press’ Ken Miller.

Amid a surge in COVID-19 hospitalizations and deaths nationally, a top public health official Thursday “called on religious leaders to keep their worship spaces closed, despite rising protests from some church leaders,” according to NPR’s Tom Gjelten:

“The virus is having a wonderful time right now, taking advantage of circumstances where people have let their guard go down,” said Dr. Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health. “Churches gathering in person is a source of considerable concern and has certainly been an instance where super spreading has happened and could happen again.”

Holly Meyer, The Tennessean’s religion writer, also quoted Collins, himself a regular churchgoer:

While speaking Thursday with a top Southern Baptist leader, Collins encouraged  Christians to seek out the truth about the vaccines awaiting approval from the Food and Drug Administration instead of the misinformation and conspiracy theories being spread out of fear and anxiety. Collins pointed to a Bible verse in Philippians 4 for guidance.

“‘Brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable — if anything is excellent or praiseworthy — think about such things,'” Collins said. “That would apply really well right here. So whatever is true.”

In one of the week’s more interesting features, CNN’s Kristen Rogers delved into a deadly lesson for houses of worship from the 1918 influenza pandemic that killed at least 50 million people worldwide.

Power Up: The Week’s Best Reads

  1. Joe Biden’s Catholic faith has shaped his life and approach to politics. How will it shape his presidency?: The president-elect’s religious background — no secret to Religion Unplugged readers — remains a subject of high interest.

This in-depth overview by the Boston Globe’s Jazmine Ulloa is certainly interesting, as is this thorough piece by the Philadelphia Inquirer’s Julia Terruso.

Also worth a read: this Washington Post analysis by Christopher White on how Biden and new Cardinal Wilton Gregory “share a mandate for healing divisions.”

  1. Faith groups are vital to the social safety net. But volunteers they rely on are aging and their denominations are shrinking: This revealing story by Religion News Service’s Bob Smietana is the third in a series supported by the Pulitzer Center and produced in partnership with the Washington Post.

Previous installments include Smietana’s piece on faith-based charities worrying about the future as organized religion shrinks and Aysha Khan’s report on Muslims becoming more involved in disaster relief projects.

Still to come: a review of overseas charitable work.

   3. Southern Baptists keep quarreling over critical race theory: Christianity Today’s Kate Shellnutt explains the latest debate over race, Scripture and secular theories by the nation’s largest Protestant denomination.

For more insight on this issue, see Yonat Shimron’s report for Religion News Service.

Bobby Ross Jr. is a columnist for Religion Unplugged and editor-in-chief of The Christian Chronicle. A former religion writer for The Associated Press and The Oklahoman, Ross has reported from all 50 states and 15 nations. He has covered religion since 1999.