Perplexing questions are the name of the game over the past several months. Does social distancing really work? Do masks prevent the spread of the virus? Is it safe to visit elderly relatives? Do we have to worry about spreading the virus while outside?
To say that there’s a lot of confusion and concern would be an understatement.
Because of this concern, many have complied with official recommendations and avoided offices, churches, schools, and other public places. But do some of these guidelines interfere with our rights as Americans?
That’s a question many are asking, particularly with regards to religious services. As the chart below shows, many states either restricted worship services to under 10 people or prohibited them entirely. For many churches, the desire to be wise and comply with the biblical mandate to be subject to governing authorities has guided decisions to worship through online services. Yet as time goes on, many realize that such meetings don’t exactly fulfill another biblical mandate to not forsake assembling together. And as more businesses and stores are allowed to come back into the land of “essential services,” churches are left wondering why they must still cap meetings at 10 people, despite leaders’ willingness to enforce social distancing guidelines such as those at other public gathering places.
Concerned that religious liberty is being threatened, more churches are challenging these restrictions. For instance, in North Carolina several churches joined together to sue Gov. Roy Cooper over his attempts to limit church attendance. Judge James Dever III granted a temporary restraining order preventing authorities from limiting church attendance. He explained his decision by saying “There is no pandemic exception to the Constitution of the United States or the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment.”
A similar suit was filed in Michigan, but is now on hold because Gov. Gretchen Whitmer changed her mind about penalizing churches and churchgoers who went against her executive order. Numerous other states – including Minnesota, Oregon, California, and Kansas – have dealt with, or are currently dealing with, lawsuits regarding religious gatherings.
Why all the fuss? Is it a distraction from the crisis at hand if these churches pursue these lawsuits, seeking to rid themselves of their government-appointed “non-essential” status? Or is there a real need to insist that churches are essential and ought to be allowed to pursue their religious liberties?
Thomas Paine has some light to shed on that issue. Although a Deist, and often called an atheist, Paine argued that religious liberty was a necessity, saying that he was “fully convinced… that spiritual freedom is the root of political liberty.”
Paine offers three reasons to support his assertion:
First. Because till spiritual freedom was made manifest, political liberty did not exist.
Secondly. Because in proportion that spiritual freedom has been manifested, political liberty has increased.
Thirdly. Whenever the visible church has been oppressed, political freedom has suffered with it.
In essence, there seems to be a cause and effect between political and religious liberty, and we cannot have one without the other.
Paine concludes by saying:
As the union between spiritual freedom and political liberty seems nearly inseparable, it is our duty to defend both. And defence in the first instance is best. The lives of hundreds of both countries had been preserved had America been in arms a year ago. Our enemies have mistaken our peace for cowardice, and supposing us unarmed have begun the attack.
It seems the question we must ask is whether we truly love liberty. If we do, then according to Paine, we will defend religious liberty regardless of our own religious inclinations.
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