In Arkansas, Pastor Chad Gonzales of Awaken Church defied demands to end services. His declaration of Jesus as a coronavirus victim was based on the belief that Jesus took away every sin and disease on the cross, a particularly powerful message for Easter. Similarly, Pastor Tony Spell of the Life Tabernacle Church in Louisiana was arrested for holding large services. Spell declared his intention to hold large Easter services and insisted that he will never yield to this “dictator law.” Even more chilling was his statement that “true Christians do not mind dying.”
If this were a matter of just congregants dying, a constitutional argument could be made for the right to make a self destructive decision based on faith. Adults can forgo simple medicines or transfusions that would save their lives. Likewise, the snake handlers in West Virginia can still engage in that dangerous practice based on a passage in the Bible that the faithful “shall take up serpents” and the story of Paul surviving a venomous viper. Yet even in practices that kill only the faithful, many states have outlawed snake handling as dangerous to both humans and snakes.
One of the key factors in any constitutional review is whether free exercise of religion is truly being denied, as suggested by these pastors. There is a curtailing of free exercise of religion, including the important element of congregating together in faith, but these orders only temporarily halt one form of faithful expression and do not stop worshiping. Most faiths have moved online during the lockdown. Just as states can force churches to satisfy building or fire codes, they can bar congregating in churches and temples as public health risks in a pandemic like this one.
The objection from these pastors is not frivolous as there is a substantial curtailment in an expression of faith. But this is not an effort to establish a favored state church. It is content neutral on particular faiths impacted by the limitation on crowd size. Their views are not frivolous, but they are still reckless. Free exercise of religion does not allow dangerous acts, even if they are part of a demonstration of faith. A pastor should not be able to disregard public health limits on congregation size to fight a pandemic threat any more than he can disregard a fire safety threat.