During the Covid-19 pandemic many state governments across the country have banned church worship services. Some states have prohibited religious services altogether, while others have placed severe restrictions on the number of people who may gather to worship. While the constitutionality of this unprecedented move is certainly open to debate, one may question whether such bans are morally appropriate. Thus, we may ask, do religious practitioners have a moral obligation to abide by these mandates even if they are constitutional?

Here is an argument which challenges the moral appropriateness of the bans on religious services:

  1. Civil government has a moral duty to permit what is essential to human flourishing.
  2. The corporate worship of God is essential to human flourishing.
  3. Therefore, civil government mandates which forbid corporate worship are immoral.
  4. Christians do not have a duty to abide by immoral government mandates, particularly those which proscribe fundamental aspects of their religious practice.
  5. Therefore, Christians do not have a moral duty to abide by a government mandate to abstain from corporate worship.

What follows from the conclusion here is that congregants at local Christian churches don’t have an obligation to abide by the government mandate to avoid meeting for corporate worship.

This is a logically valid and, I believe, sound argument. That is, the conclusion follows from the premises and, it seems to me, each of the premises is true. I assume most Christians will grant the first and fourth premises, as would all Christian ethicists and theologians I know of. So that leaves the critic with the burden of demonstrating that the second premise is false. Presumably, many atheists and religious skeptics will reject this premise, in some cases because they believe that religious practice of any kind is actually harmful. That’s fine. My main audience with this argument is fellow religious practitioners.

But is the Covid-19 pandemic somehow serious enough to justify a qualification to the second premise and thus warrant certain bans on worship services? In other words, might this pandemic provide a special exception to the general truth that corporate worship services enhance human flourishing? This question naturally leads us into a discussion of a whole nest of issues that are epidemiological, immunological, microbiological, economic, and statistical in nature. This is why we must pay close attention to recent reports and scientific studies showing the mortality rate of the Coronavirus is much lower than previously thought. Several recent studies suggest that the mortality rate of this virus is comparable to that of common strains of flu. Other reports suggest a higher mortality rate than seasonal flu, though still no more than .08%. But is this difference significant enough to warrant a general ban on religious services? It’s difficult to see how it could be when other options are available. For example, why not rather encourage high risk people (i.e., the elderly and those with pre-existing medical problems) to stay at home while allowing others to resume practice of corporate worship?

If Covid-19 mortality rate data is inconclusive in terms of justifying general bans on corporate worship services, then the social harms caused by the shutdowns should give us further pause as regards warranting an exception to the general good of corporate worship. There is also the economic dimension of shutdowns, which some economists believe could trigger a depression. Furthermore, the shutdowns are taking a serious public mental health toll in our country.

All things considered, there is evidence to suggest that the shutdowns, not just of worship services but other sectors of society, are more harmful than helpful, potentially more devastating to American society than any flu virus could be. This creates strong supplemental support for my argument’s second premise, which given any reasonable Christian view of government already enjoys a strong presumption in its favor. Therefore, only very strong empirical evidence could nullify it’s applicability to our current situation. And that, I submit, no one has provided, despite what our political leaders and the American mainstream media have been telling us.


11 Responses to “Are Government Bans on Religious Worship Services Morally Appropriate?”


  1. Steve Phillips

     

    About six weeks ago I wrote a post for a bioethics blog expressing my concern that the reaction to the new coronavirus might cause more harm due to fear than the harm from the virus itself. That was at a time when little was known. Now we know that this virus is capable of causing a significant number of deaths even with the measures that have been taken to slow its spread. Mortality rates based on the number of deaths per people with the virus are confusing when the total number infected is not known. What we do know now is that the number of deaths per number of people in the population is significant. That makes this virus a serious enough threat to warrant government action based on the duty of government to protect the population from harm. I would suggest a second part to premise 1 stating that civil government also has a moral obligation to prevent harm to the people governed. I would also modify premise 2 to say that the good of corporate worship needs to be balanced with our duty as Christians to care for those who are vulnerable. While the direct prohibition of corporate worship by government may not be appropriate, Christians may still have a moral obligation to comply with a government recommendation to limit the size of public gatherings to prevent harm to the vulnerable.

    Reply
  2. Xan Bozzo

     

    Good thoughts as always!

    There is much to say here… But it seems clear (to me at least) that COVID-19 is worse than the seasonal flu: it has killed more over a shorter period of time, and this *while* we are on lockdown, it has overwhelmed our hospitals in a way that the flu does not seem to, it’s a new virus and so the uncertainty surrounding it warrants a different response than our response to the flu (at least initially), it seems to be more contagious (it is hard to find exact figures on this though), which would render the mortality rate statistics relevant, but not all-things-considered relevant (and the place for lockdowns understandable). The question really does seem to come down to: what would the *projected* number need to be to justify a lockdown and the barring of religious services? COVID-19 seems to be a case worse than the flu but not so bad as to instill agreement on a lockdown. Without precise information (suffering from the economic fallout on lockdown versus the suffering without lockdown), it’s hard to know.

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  3. Stephen

     

    Nice post. Hadn’t seen anyone take on the morality of church closure well, so this is much appreciated.

    Some thoughts on the syllogism:

    Premise 1 seems true, but ambiguous. So, by “essential” we could mean something like ’that which is must be continually present for human flourishing,’ and of course the government should not obstruct that. This sense would refer to things which necessarily and in all instances underlie the possibility of a flourishing life, say a general lack of restraint upon my bodily movement (contrary to which might be putting me in a cage) or the presence of adequate nutrition, and is thus something the government has a duty to respect (or at least not hinder). Or, by “essential” we could mean something like ‘that which is constitutive of general human flourishing, but is not continually necessary.’ Such things in this latter category could be gone without for a time. And there are many things like this which must characterize our lives to in order to rightly say we’ve flourished. Yet, if I went without them briefly I could still be said to be a flourishing person in their absence. (An explanation like this seems to underlie any solid explanation of how fasting could fit into a flourishing existence.) In any case, the government has a clear duty to respect the former sense probably without exception. It seems unlikely that it would have that duty in the latter sense, since suspending those goods temporarily could be consistent with a flourishing existence. So premise 1 may not support the conclusion.

    The same distinctions apply to reading Premise 2. Does this premise mean that missing corporate worship for a time would imply we couldn’t be said to be flourishing? Does a temporary interruption mean that the Christian is not flourishing? Perhaps not maximally, but does the government have an obligation to permit that which allows for ‘maximal’ flourishing? That seems too strong to accept without argument (and if so, the burden will not rest with the critic). A weaker reading seems reasonable. Corporate worship must characterize our lives, but this admits of legitimate interruptions. But I don’t think the conclusion can follow from a premise like that.

    The same goes, mutatis mutandis, for premise 4 in regards to the meaning of ‘fundamental.’ Fundamental in the sense of necessarily constitutive, such that interruption would mean a cessation of flourishing? Doubtful. Fundamental in that it must be characteristic of the Christian life in general? Certainly, but then it warrants exceptions, admits of legitimate interruptions, and the argument will only go through on the strength of empirical concerns, and the burden will rest on them. Even if we take this weaker sense and conclude that on the weight of evidence the government is immoral in prohibiting us, as the argument stands can we still conclude that we escape our putative duty to respect the ruling authority? Probably not if we don’t also escape that duty in other cases where law is immoral but does not strike at the core of Christian duty.

    Reply
    • Gabriele

       

      Well said, I agree the terms ‘essential’ to ‘flourish’ is quite a large open ended statement. I believe many might also agree a livable working wage and public health care would allow people to ‘flourish’ I don’t see those who cry ‘liberate now’ group also proponents of this reasoning.

      Agreed! point 2- essential? is again quite a strong statement. ‘preferred’ or ‘desirable’. Are monks and those who seek to live a solitary life or the Christians who live persecuted/underground in various countries NOT able to worship God?

      I wonder where are those preaching Romans 13:1 ‘submit to governing authorities’ or 1 Pet 2:13-25.

      To argue (Dr. Spiegel) that for a limited time (these rules are not definite) people are unable to worship because they cannot gather is a nonsensical argument.

      Reply
  4. Mike

     

    Sorry if I’m not able to form a coherent narrative response, but I did want to weigh in. My apologies if I’m not reflecting directly with your argument / proposition. Hopefully this is still helpful.

    From what I have gathered the question to lock down versus do our best to get back to business is an impossible choice with ethical dilemmas around every turn!

    It’s hard to focus just on the corporate worship question (is that really the most pressing / crushing aspect to the government recommendations?) because you broaden your question at the end to other sectors of society I mostly am thinking about that. If you are really imagining granting permission for worship gatherings (of any size?), though, while locking down the rest of business/life, that would send a confusing message about the seriousness of what we are collectively experiencing.

    I fully agree there is great harm happening all around us as a direct result of locking down things. I really wish the empirical data existed to satisfy anyone looking honestly to decide for themselves whether they agree with the stringent protocols. That is the nature of this beast, though, that it is a _novel (new) virus_ and we don’t yet know how best to keep it from spreading and how to ameliorate those that suffer from it. Unfortunately there aren’t enough masks and skills for how to properly wear them to have an entire population go about safely in any large group setting. I’m not so sure I would want to sing into an N-95 respirator at corporate worship time, though…

    But if you did have a hard, empirical number to hang your hat on and that everyone magically agreed on – is 1% fatality sufficient motivation to lock down? Is 2%, 4%, 5%? Even if the fatality was 20%, someone is going to argue natural selection and still that it is the greater good to proceed. I want to remind everyone there is more harm than just death to be concerned with. What about the cost of hospitalizations for otherwise healthy people that can be saved but now all of a sudden are sacked with medical debt for ? days in the ICU? What about other long-term affects we don’t yet know?
    Also, if gatherings were relaxed and the population returned to normal activities, you would likely still end up with crushing problems weeks down the road from the increased dispersion of the disease all at once.

    I appreciated this article as it helped me to process the ethics of opening cities versus maintaining the course until we learn more: https://www.cnn.com/2020/04/23/us/reopening-country-coronavirus-utilitarianism/index.html
    Here’s an important (to me) snippet:
    “There seems to be an implication that we can do a cost/benefit analysis about how many people we are willing to sacrifice in order to get the economy going.”
    “Such a sacrifice won’t be distributed equally. Studies have shown that Covid-19 disproportionately strikes minorities, the elderly and the poor.”

    I don’t remember Jesus specifically exhorting us to preserve life for certain age groups, but my version of Jesus dis-proportionally favors justice for the poor and down-trodden. It has been shocking for me to see the numbers of infected and fatalities climb in the minority communities. It is revealing sad truths about our society. Moves to open up need to square up against what we do already know about those that are most affected. If returning now meant more disproportionate harm to these vulnerable groups, can you condemn them and their increased risk for what seems like the greater good?

    Maybe there are logical fallacies within the article and in favor of lockdowns, but I am not ready to even cautiously go into large group gatherings.

    The most insidious thing about this is how it can be transmitted asymptomatically. And if I can be sick and not know it; sneeze, cough, or breathe next to people for multiple days, I could cause my own chain of devastation that I am NOT ready to own. I am so fortunate to not (that I know of) be in a risk group for dying from this disease — maybe I won’t even know it — maybe I’ve already caught it and recovered? But that is cold comfort to know that if/when I get it I may never show symptoms and then pass it along unknowingly to friends, loved ones, and a high percentage of anyone I (and then they) interact with.

    Everyone should be living as though they are infected and capable of passing this disease along to everyone they meet.

    If testing for the infection were actually available to anyone that wanted a test then it feels like it would be a completely different picture. We could test everyone for a few weeks and quarantine anyone that tested positive and do our best to cover our mouths when out in public. Smarter people than me are trying to figure this thing out and if there was a better alternative then I’m sure our leaders would be hearing about it and ending this brutal season.

    In Indiana, April 24th just had the highest number of confirmed cases of covid-19 in a single day. 717 newly reported cases (https://www.coronavirus.in.gov/). That JUST happened and is after weeks and weeks of painful efforts to stay in and shut everything down. I don’t think fatalities are really all that you are concerned with, but this thing just keeps getting bigger and infections have not yet gone down. Encouraging gatherings (not that you are) for freedom’s sake is reckless and will likely prolong this global and local nightmare.

    Maybe it is different in some communities that feel like they know nobody is sick (see above about asymptomatic transfer), but I don’t know how opening some parts of the country for large gatherings would work with the diaspora of families these days and the sheer number of people we are in contact with and the capacity for the virus to travel through our population.

    I don’t know anybody that is content with this new status quo so while I respect the questioning and free speech of your blog, please don’t do more harm than good. If you encourage people to gather or convene before we can find better ways of testing, contact tracing, and treatments for those that need medical attention, then you may be indirectly responsible for people making bad decisions, getting themselves or others sick, or worse.

    Speaking to the question of corporate worship in general, I have been blessed to take part in an online church community flowing from the in-person experience to the best of our community’s ability. I hope that if you haven’t had that opportunity yet, that you can find something meaningful to you in these trying times.

    Reply
    • Gabriele

       

      Thank you Mike, for your care and concern for those who are poor and vulnerable and recognizing that your actions affect others whether you want them to or not.

      Reply
  5. Gabriele

     

    Well, my previous response has been weighing on me for the past week, did I go too far in calling your argument nonsense? Maybe, maybe not. The ability to have civil discourse civilly is of great importance to me, and of course the inability to sit across from one another and spar ideas with a congenial handshake and smile afterwards is just not possible due to the nature of online communities (notwithstanding COVID regulations).

    I admit my response was at the 5 o clock hour while I was also cooking for a family of 6, likely not the ideal time for a response, but as a mother of 4 littles, when is there an ideal time? I believe you know what I mean!

    I still agree that your arguments in your 1-5 were weak, in my opinion, due to previously mentioned matters.

    I DO agree that we MUST weigh the nature of how we ought to respond (balancing how this challenges so many areas many which you also mentioned, the health and welfare of peoples mental and emotional states, the state of the economy, the health and welfare of people whose homes are at high risk for violence, ) in order to seek to do the least harm. While some seem to have a knee jerk reaction to the fact that loss of jobs and economy is a merely monetary set back and that one could only want the economy rolling so that it looks good for re-election is too cynical a view for me (even if it may be personally true or even subconsciously true for some individuals). We must admit that people being able to feed themselves, provide for themselves, and care for their bodies and others is important. We also must admit that our actions/reactions affect others and in turn creating food shortages or not supporting other nations who rely on us creates a wrecking ball of problems that is tough to undo. On might look back and wonder, would an economic implosion have occurred either way? Perhaps this will be a giant reshuffling and reorganizing of the economy that will actually be beneficial. Perhaps instead of our materialistic mindset of wastefully purchasing new clothes for each new season from countries that cannot afford a new shirt once every 2 years for themselves will allow for ingenuity and new ways of revenue for people to benefit from their own labors and for the rich not to be fattened while other nations starve. To this we could only hope.

    Come Lord Jesus Come. As King you will certainly set things right, but until then, grant our leaders wisdom and HUMILITY to do what is best for others that you rule and reign might continue to be made manifest on earth as it is in heaven.

    My immediate reaction was let it come, we shall weather it and move on. But I admit that was for me, a selfish reaction. Yes, much is unknown and the fierceness of this disease does appear to be showing it’s toll. Clearly to me it is ‘worse’ than a flu virus as it novel and by you continuing to refer to it in such a way — spreads misinformation. But I also agree, that due to several balls being dropped again and again we do NOT have adequate testing and cannot tell the actual severity or lack of severity for this disease. And to me this is THE problem in assessing what the way forward is. And until that problem is remedied and more revealed, we as Christians ought to submit to the governing authorities and find creative ways to engage.

    Reply
    • Jim Spiegel

       

      Thanks, Gabriele.
      Yes, your calling my argument “nonsense” was a bit uncharitable. But I forgive you. I understand how in the heat of the moment, especially during the stress of dinner prep, self-editing can be a challenge. So don’t worry about that.
      Now, to clarify, I never asserted that Covid-19 was no worse than the seasonal flu virus. What I said was “we must pay close attention to recent reports and scientific studies showing the mortality rate of the Coronavirus is much lower than previously thought.” I also noted that “several recent studies suggest that the mortality rate of this virus is comparable to that of common strains of flu.” Note that “comparable” does not mean “the same as.” And I also granted that “other reports suggest a higher mortality rate than seasonal flu.” All of that seems pretty fair, truthful, and even-handed to me. So I don’t see where what I have said “spreads misinformation” (a serious charge, given the circumstances). Might you have “spread misinformation” by falsely suggesting that I did so?
      I do agree with your emphasis on the need for wisdom and humility as we all reflect on this, and this entails a willingness to recognize that we are ignorant of many of the facts, including how damaging these shutdowns might turn out to be. Our leaders, as well as the rest of us, do need wisdom and humility to consider that perhaps some of the shutdowns are an overreach and that the case for shutdowns of worship services in particular might not be as cut and dried as it seems to many people. In fact, to call for such wisdom and humility was in a sense the purpose of my post. Of course, I could be wrong. But you may just as likely be wrong.

      Reply
  6. Gabriele Replogle

     

    Well thank you for your forgiveness. And yes, of course, I may be wrong!

    I did see that you included both resources about the disparities of information regarding Covid’s death rate in comparison to the flu virus. I believe I was noting at the end of your argument this statement. “potentially more devastating to American society than any flu virus could be.” It seemed that you had been speaking directly about the effects of this new covid virus and then instead finished with calling it ‘a flu virus’. Perhaps you were speaking directly about influenza, but I didn’t think it followed your line of argument.

    Can you please explain what you mean by “perhaps some of the shutdowns are an overreach and that the case for shutdowns of worship services in particular might not be as cut and dried as it seems to many people.” ? Are you speaking to your argument that it overreaches it’s moral obligations or something else? Or do you have some non philosophical but direct practical implications in mind?

    If Covid were a literal tidal wave of flood waters seeking to cover and then kill a proportion of .08% of people (and also severely injure a percentage more) and if by those continuing to swim in such waters, others did not see or understand the waters and hence MORE drowned, is it not the governments moral duty to prevent and ban people from not sheltering from the storm and then not swimming in the treacherous debris filled water?

    I understand this is not a exactly fair comparison because in the view of a virus, it was possible that the buildings and communities could continue to ‘stand’ and be ‘seemingly’ untouched by said flood waters, but it is to this that we encourage individuals to ‘shelter’ from the storm or to ‘flee’ from the fire escaping it with nothing left. Of course, we hold those hugely responsible for false claims of storms coming or fire when there is none. So, it does come down to a matter of trust on who understands and is able to read the Doppler radar correctly or understand combustible materials and explosiveness and spread of fires the most.

    Thanks again for your response, I appreciate you clarifying your argument.

    Reply
  7. Jim Spiegel

     

    When I said that some of the shutdowns might be an overreach I had in mind several ways that these mandates might be unwarranted, whether due to the fact that they are done in regions where the case count is very low, or when they are applied in such a way as to deem some important activities (e.g., corporate worship) as non essential as eating at a restaurant or attending sporting event. It is also the case that there are many other activities that are permitted in this country (e.g., smoking, overeating, driving 70 mph on the interstate, etc.) which result in hundreds of thousands of deaths every year, but no one is clamoring to make them illegal. So where is the consistency? I plan to write a post to expand on this point soon. This will address your flood analogy among other things.

    Also, it is interesting to note that none of those who commented on my post had much to say about the significance of corporate worship. Your comments certainly seem to take for granted that there is nothing compelling in the fact that two critical church sacraments–baptism and communion–cannot be administered via on-line services. For those Church traditions where communion is done on a weekly basis and necessarily administered by an ordained minister, this is a serious loss. And even in those traditions where communion is administered monthly, as the corporate shutdowns continue, the loss is felt there as well. Now your particular church tradition might not be highly sacramental, but for tens of millions of Americans communion is a means of grace, and they are being deprived of this. That is a big deal, a serious blow to their relationship with God, and yes, something for which one may reasonably risk one’s physical well-being.

    Reply
    • Gabriele

       

      Well, I look forward to your post. However, I believe we may be starting from a place of ‘alternative facts’ or clearly different assumptions on those facts. My belief that CovId-19 has shown to have many (17% or more) who are asymptomatic, something which has been discussed early on from it’s in-depth research from the town in Italy. And that this virus has a considerably highly contagious and we live in a world where people do not just stay in their town, but travel all over, outside of their town for necessary shopping, outside of their county, state and country. And that just because a small area does not appear to have it yet, (that we know of because there is not enough testing), I believe it is necessary to contain the virus the only way we are able- through abstaining from public interactions.

      Speeding is illegal and is of course punished by fine, arrest, and reckless driving and endangerment of others is punishable even by jail-time. Speeding is not contagious.
      Smoking is also illegal in many areas where it is harmful to others and again does not spread as a contagion like a virus.
      Overeating again not contagious. They are not fair comparisons.

      In regard to the pain felt by certain religious practices. The pope is obeying the order- which ought to suggest he has not come to the same conclusion as you. He has also granted indulgences in order ease the suffering of those who cannot practice in the same manner as previous. Drive up communions have been permitted.

      Again to me we must differentiate that those who worship are being asked to come up with alternative methods to worship. I did not feel the need to discuss worship in my initial response because it has not been halted, but only hindered, for it is only the method that is being asked to change. People may pray and worship at home, via online communities, thru the phone, within their family. People may sing and worship God freely in their own homes, online publicly, even outside publicly if they are are at a distance. I agree Dr. Spiegel, there is great frustration that is occurring. We cannot physically minister to those lonely and scared in their hospital beds and their homes. My initial response is to want to run into the danger of the hospitals and care for those who are hurting, to pray for them to comfort their families. putting my training in crisis counseling and degrees in Pastoral Counseling and Spiritual Formation to use. Just as many others are trained and gifted. However, I must also note that there are thanks be to God, many nurses and doctors who are already there, already praying already ministering and the Lord has allowed them there, when I cannot be.

      My Christian faith informs me that Jesus is not absent from the world, but that he can mystically meet people where there are through his spirit, speak and comfort them in dreams and visions (notwithstanding thru preaching, singing worship etc which is still online and on the air waves.)

      Could it be that some of our religious practices and beliefs will be shaken that have become idolatry and others maybe even internalized as important due to the abstaining for a time? That (which is obviously painful at first) would in the end do greater good than harm, in my estimation.

      sources which discuss this issues:
      https://www.npr.org/sections/goatsandsoda/2020/04/13/831883560/can-a-coronavirus-patient-who-isnt-showing-symptoms-infect-others

      https://www.newsweek.com/coronavirus-mass-testing-experiment-italian-town-covid-19-outbreak-1493183

      https://www.lifesitenews.com/news/pope-grants-special-indulgences-to-catholics-affected-by-coronavirus-allows-general-absolution

      https://www.cnn.com/2020/04/08/europe/pope-francis-coronavirus-nature-response-intl/index.html

      Reply

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