The nation's largest legal organization dedicated exclusively to defending religious liberty for all Americans has issued a resource for churches on how to respond to orders involving the coronavirus.
Texas-based First Liberty Institute has released what it calls a "Guidance for Churches and Religious Institutions Facing Coronavirus Restrictions on Gathering."
"We're getting a lot of calls these days, especially from churches, saying my city, my county, my state, whatever it is, has some sort of lock-down or ban," says First Liberty attorney Jeremy Dys of Texas. "It's made it difficult on everybody."
In accordance with Dallas-area limits on gatherings of more than 500 people at the time, Pastor Robert Jeffress, an evangelical ally of President Trump, reportedly held in-person services at his First Baptist megachurch the first Sunday after the coronavirus began upending life in the U.S. But he has since said his church would hold online-only worship services.
Jeffress had called for "a fearless church" but said last week that Christians should take "common-sense approaches" to protect their health.
"Every pastor needs to use wisdom, and it is very obvious that the government's motivation in this is to protect the well-being of individuals," he said.
Donald Shipp of First Assemblies of God Church in Greers Ferry, Arkansas might be inclined to agree. He told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette on Monday that 34 people who were in attendance during a children's event March 5th-8th at the church had tested positive for the virus, and more were awaiting test results.
"In Dallas County, where I live, the county has said that we have to shelter in place," Jeremy Dys reports. "So we can go outside to play in our yard, walk down the street, [and] go for a jog, but beyond that, we have to stay in our homes unless we're going to go out and get medicine or food. And we can’t go to church."
In addition to the "Guidance," First Liberty Institute also has a webpage that includes a podcast and a brief history of the impact of pandemics on religious freedom. For example, some governments temporarily restricted public gatherings in 1918 due to the Spanish Flu, which affected churches and other religious institutions. While local pastors were worried about the limitations' place on the First Amendment's guarantee of the "free exercise of religion" and the "right of the people to peaceably assemble," they chose to cooperate and work with the government.
"A permanent ban on religious gatherings will never fly under the Constitution, and we'll be eager to challenge that if that lasts past the temporary nature," says Dys about cities and states ordering people not to gather in large numbers.
But for the time being, he says it is important for the Church to "rely upon the health apparatus" and respect that the state is fighting this pandemic. He adds, though, that the state must also recognize that the Church is its own entity and that it provides "a wonderful service to the society around us."