Coronavirus gathering bans raise religious freedom questions

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Chattanooga Times Free Press

FILE - In this Sunday, March 15, 2020 photo, Redemption to the Nations church Lead Pastor Kevin Wallace preaches to his congregation about trusting God to help them get through the COVID-19 coronavirus threat in Chattanooga, Tenn. While most churches around Hamilton County decided to cancel services because of concerns over the disease, Redemption to the Nations stayed open. (Troy Stolt/Chattanooga Times Free Press via AP)

NEW YORK, N.Y. – On the first Sunday after the coronavirus began upending American life, some religious institutions – including two churches whose pastors are close to President Donald Trump – held in-person services amid public health worries over the pandemic. That picture already looks different this week.

Pastor Robert Jeffress, a stalwart evangelical ally of Trump, held services at his First Baptist megachurch this past Sunday in accordance with Dallas-area limits on gatherings of more than 500 people but said in an interview that this week, he would hold online-only worship. The Florida church where Paula White, Trump’s personal pastor and a White House adviser on faith issues, invited congregants to in-person services this past Sunday will also shift to online-only status this week, according to a spokeswoman.

Jeffress, who had called for “a fearless church,” said on Tuesday 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.

Churches and other religious institutions that have chafed at public health experts’ calls to fight the virus by avoiding gatherings are under heightened scrutiny as those experts’ pleas become edicts from government officials, including Trump. In a nation where faith can be as politically polarized as any other part of life – and where freedom to worship has become a rallying cry on the right – some conservative religious institutions are acknowledging that the government’s word comes first during a pandemic.

Liberty University, where president Jerry Falwell Jr. had initially planned to resume classes next week, said Monday that the evangelical Christian campus would largely shift to online learning after Virginia’s governor restricted gatherings of more than 100 people.

“All we’re trying to do is obey the law. We might not agree with the governor on the best way to keep this from spreading, but he is the governor and the ban has been issued,” Falwell said in an interview.

Falwell, who speculated on Fox News last week that coronavirus may have been the work of North Korea, added that he remains unworried about the virus but would not impose his view on others: “I just think it’s silly to be wringing your hands and worrying about something like this, but that’s just my personality.”