Should the Centers for Disease Control Issue Guidelines for Worship? The Answer is No, But How You Get to That Answer Is Important

Headlines have come in recent days in a collision between the Trump administration and the Centers for Disease Control, at least reportedly, over whether or not the CDC would release guidelines for religious organizations and religious worship as a part of the comprehensive guidelines to be released in order to assist Americans in coming out of the shelter in place orders, opening up the economy. The big question is, is it the business of the Centers for Disease Control or any other department or division of government to offer advice or guidelines on how religious bodies should conduct their religious services and organize their religious lives? That is a huge question and made a headline in the Washington Post. The headline to the article: “Reopening Guidance for Churches Delayed After White House and CDC Disagree.”

The article by a team of reporters for the Washington Post tells us, “Guidance for reopening houses of worship amid the coronavirus pandemic has been put on hold after a battle between the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the White House, which was resistant to putting limits on religious institutions according to administration officials.” Listen to the next sentence, “The CDC this week issued a detailed roadmap for reopening schools, childcare facilities, restaurants, and mass transit. On Tuesday night, the agency issued additional guidance in the form of health considerations for summer camps, including overnight camps and youth sports organizations and colleges. But,” says the article, “there are currently no plans to issue guidance for religious institutions according to three administration officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss policy decisions.”

Well, let’s just pause to consider that a little bit of drama was dropped into the story there, no doubt intentionally and accurately for that matter when we are told that there were three administration officials who had spoken to the team of reporters, “On the condition of anonymity.” Now, does that sound sinister? It is dramatic, after all, you’re talking about sources here who do not want to be identified. But that particular statement can mean two different things. One is that this is a deep source that might be injured by being revealed one way or another. Some journalism over the course of the last several decades has relied upon these kinds of anonymous sources. The problem is of course, no one can check the source. It’s known only to the reporter, potentially to the reporter and editors.

There’s another reason, however, and that is that sometimes an administration or a government department will release information it wants to get into the public, but it doesn’t want to have a name attached to it. Which is the case here? We don’t know. But we’re not talking about national secrets here.

Spokesman Judd Deere for the White House said that President Trump and all Americans, “Want to see their churches safely open again. Not only,” said the spokesman, “is it good for the community, it’s their right under the Constitution to worship freely without government intrusion. The Trump administration will always protect that right,” he said, “and continue to partner with states to ensure congregations are properly protected as restrictions are responsibly eased.” That’s a very strong statement from the White House and it has been echoed with similarly strong statements coming from the Attorney General of the United States, William Barr, and the Justice Department, including the Office of the Attorney General, has been involved in issuing guidance of its own, a warning to several states and their governors that they are encroaching upon the religious liberty of the citizens of their states with overly restrictive guidelines. They’re often referred to as guidelines concerning how religious observances, services, can be held and reinstated in the pandemic.

Later in the article, we read, “The CDC draft guidance on houses of worship was the subject of much internal debate at the White House last month. Some aides did not want any guidance for religious institutions. Others thought recommendations were too restrictive.”

The next paragraph, “In the end, the decision to hold back reopening guidance for religious institutions came from some White House and coronavirus task force officials who did not want to alienate the faithful and believed that some of the proposals such as limits on hymnals, the size of choirs, or the passing of collection plates were too restrictive according to two administration officials.” We’re down from three officials to two officials, but they’re still unnamed.

A political background is argued within the article, “Trump and Vice President Pence have maintained close ties to conservative religious leaders during the shutdown, scheduling private calls and asking for support as they try to reopen the nation.”

We now know that the draft guidelines for religious institutions had argued that there should be no communal sharing of prayer books, hymnals, and other worship materials. There were also suggestions about using stationary collection boxes rather than passing the plate during the offering. And perhaps most controversially, there were guidelines suggesting that there should be no choirs in the course of worship, but rather there should be a reliance upon soloists or musical ensembles, smaller groups. Of course, all of this is a part of a longer conversation that has only grown more intense and controversial during the pandemic, as it has unfolded. Issues of religious liberty colliding with the guidelines or policies, or even legally enforceable orders handed down by governors and by mayors and other government officials. All this has been a part of the news.

If you go back to the 27th of April, the Washington Post ran an article with the headline, “White House Is Reviewing Expanded Guidance on Reopening Society.” You look at that article, the reporters in that case were two of the three in the article released this week. And going back to that article, we were told that the White House was putting pressure on the CDC to be particularly sensitive when it came to guidelines about religious observances. One administration official said in that article, “Churches don’t like being told how to operate. We are told there was a decision to say, ‘consider’ in the guidelines. So we aren’t infringing. Churches aren’t going to want to give up hymnals or choirs or normal services.”

Furthermore, in recent days, the New York Times ran an article by reporters Abby Goodnough and Maggie Haberman with the headline “White House Rejects CDC’s Coronavirus Reopening Plan.” We’re told that a copy of the CDC guidance that had been obtained by the New York Times had included at least draft language addressed to communities of faith. But we are told, “White House and other administration officials rejected the recommendations over concerns that they were overly prescriptive, infringed on religious rights and risked further damaging an economy that Mr. Trump was banking on to recover quickly.”

The story continues, “One senior official at the Department of Health and Human Services with deep ties to religious conservatives objected to any controls on church services.” That figure would have been Roger Severino, the Director of the Department of Health and Human Services Office for Civil Rights. He said, “Governments have a duty to instruct the public on how to stay safe during this crisis and can absolutely do so without dictating to people how they should worship God.” It’s interesting that at that point, Severino is described as someone who, “Once oversaw the DeVos Center for Religion and Civil Society at the Heritage Foundation.” That’s a way the New York Times would say this is a very conservative political figure in the Trump administration, as if that’s supposed to explain everything.

So how are Christians, trying to think Christianly about all these issues, supposed to unpack this situation? Well, for one thing, there’s an important distinction that has to be made. It’s not a distinction that is altogether clear in any of these articles or in all of these articles put together. It’s not particularly clear in the draft guidelines, which I have also obtained from the Centers for Disease Control. The guidelines we are told, due to the pressure from the Trump administration, are not likely to have any section at all speaking directly to religious organizations, institutions, what were referred to in the draft guidelines as communities of faith.

Now, is that right or is that wrong? Are the religious liberty concerns here overblown or are they genuine? Is this the threat of government encroachment and infringement of religious liberty? Or is this a government entity doing exactly what it has been charged to do, which is looking out for disease, trying to control disease and the spread of a pandemic? What’s going on here?

Well, this is where Christians need to understand one extremely basic distinction. It’s the distinction that we have underlined at many points in the course of this pandemic. It’s the distinction between targeted orders or targeted guidance on the one hand and generally applicable policies, orders, and guidance on the other hand. If it’s generally applicable, it is probably constitutional. It’s probably legal, or at least it must be presumed to be so. If it’s generally applicable, it means that it applies all across the society. If it’s targeted, it means that it’s targeted particularly at some sector and given our concerns here, that means particularly targeted at churches or religious organizations. You can see the obvious problem here, if any kind of policy or directive or guidance from the federal government of the United States or from a state government or any government for that matter, if it’s directed, particularly at any restriction or potential restriction on religious liberty, it’s a huge problem. It’s a problem that requires constant vigilance.

So what are we to think about this controversy? Was the Trump administration right to put pressure on the Centers for Disease Control to have no section whatsoever in its released guidelines addressed to communities of faith—I don’t like that language, but that’s the language in the document—religious organizations, institutions, churches, congregation, synagogues, mosques you go down the list? I think the Trump administration did the right thing. That’s not to say that the Centers for Disease Control is doing the wrong thing in offering guidance for how to try to prevent the spread of the pandemic and that guidance can and must be very specific. The problem is, the challenge is, the issue is, it must be generally applicable. That is to say, I don’t believe it is the business of the Centers for Disease Control or any other government agency to address religious institutions, organizations, and congregations directly with this kind of guidance.

I don’t think it’s right. In fact, I think it is a substantial problem for any kind of government agency to say, “This is how worship should be conducted,” right down to mentioning choirs and hymnals and all the rest in the context of guidance addressed to religious organizations, congregations, and churches. The problem is the government doesn’t have any business saying, “You should sing, you shouldn’t sing in such services. Worship can be conducted without a choir. You don’t have to use hymn books or prayer books. You don’t have to pass the plate.” It should not speak directly to those issues.

Interim guidance released by the Centers for Disease Control was problematic enough. Looking at this document, now weeks old, the CDC said, “For religious services, give people the option to watch online, live or recorded if possible. In addition to technology, this involves permission from religious leaders that it is acceptable to not attend religious services in person. Viewers can send a comment via the online live stream platform or an email or text to let you know they were watching. This,” according to the CDC, “also may involve permission or guidance about the use of electronic devices at times when that practice is usually not permitted, such as the Jewish Sabbath.”

Again, this was completely unnecessary. It could have been avoided if these had just been presented as generally applicable guidelines or policies. Let me illustrate it. Let’s talk about choirs. Instead of addressing choirs in any kind of guideline addressed to religious institutions and congregations, it would have been entirely within the authority and perhaps even the responsibility of the Centers for Disease Control to issue a general guidance about the danger of having a choir to sing together, practice together, to perform in a context of performance or to serve in any other context, just deal with the choir.

It’s the same thing when you’re talking about assemblies. It would be a targeted directive to say, “Churches must not or should not hold services, or should hold them in this way.” It’s generally applicable if a state or another governmental entity says, “There should be no assemblies of any kind at this time.” In my judgment, love of God and love of neighbor again means that under almost all circumstances, when it is a reasonable, generally applicable policy, Christians should respect it. We respect government. We respect the role of government and we certainly, out of love of God and love of neighbor, do not want to become vectors for spreading a pandemic. We want to preserve human life. We don’t want to endanger human life.

And there are several Christian organizations in the Southern Baptist Convention, the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission has released guidelines, just offered suggestions, for how churches should consider coming out of the lockdown and the pandemic. That’s reasonable. That’s a Christian organization. It serves a denomination, issuing a kind of guidance. And again, it’s not mandated, it is guidance. But that’s coming from within Christian organizations and you can expect the same thing from the Catholic Conference of Bishops right down to the Lutherans and the Presbyterians. For that matter, also Jewish associations, Islamic associations, each of them has the right and the responsibility to speak to their own. And each has the responsibility to operate with respect to those generally applicable principles.

Another thing Christians need to keep in mind is that when we are looking at our constitutional liberties, when we see an infringement, it is not always intended to be so. That also doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be addressed and corrected. Whether it’s intentional or unintentional, motivated by what we might think are good motives or bad motives, in any event, it needs to be addressed for what it is. But we do need to recognize that sometimes you have government officials who are just doing what government officials think it is their responsibility to do. And given the fact that millions and millions of Americans in any given normal week are involved in religious services, you can see why those services might be a concern.

Furthermore, Christians and others have to recognize that some church events have become super spreader events. We want to prevent that, it’s our responsibility to prevent that. We understand that some choirs, including most notably a nonreligious choir in Washington State is now believed to have been the origin of another super spreader event. We want to avoid that. But it’s not just religious choirs to define it that way, it’s any choir. That’s the point. Make the guidelines generally applicable. Do not, as a government official, address any kind of order like that to a church, a congregation, a synagogue, or a mosque. Understand that if you do so, doing so will not only be suspect, but is likely to be directly unconstitutional.

My own advice and counsel thinking about Christian churches coming out of the shelter in order places and reopening church and restarting in person church services would be to be particularly careful less there be any particular risk that we would become a spreader of the infection. We become a vector for disease. There are reasonable precautions that need to take place. There are reasonable regulations that must be respected and Christians must exercise very careful Christian judgment, not rushing heedlessly or recklessly into something that we may all regret and would bring dishonor to the name of Christ.

At the same time, as Christians, recognizing that we are not to neglect the assembling of ourselves together, we yearn for, we aim for, and even now plan for the resumption of in-person worship because that’s what we do. That’s what we’re called to do. Even as we are called to respect the government and obey rightful directives and exercise love of neighbor and biblical reasoning at all times.

Albert Mohler

Published by Intentional Faith

Devoted to a Faith that Thinks

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