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Balancing Coronavirus Limitations With Religious Liberty


It is holiday time in a number of religious traditions and, in any event, a time when families typically like to gather and often attend services together if they live apart. So we want to spend some time thinking again about the balance between religious freedom and government directives meant to slow the spread of the coronavirus.

We're talking about this now because the U.S. Supreme Court has recently weighed in, blocking a California order that sought to limit the number of people who could attend indoor religious services amid a concerning spike in cases there. And a week before that, the court wrote a lengthy opinion in a similar case out of New York involving restrictions there. In an unsigned opinion, the court said, quote, "the restrictions at issue here by effectively barring many from attending religious services strike at the very heart of the First Amendment's guarantee of religious liberty" and that, quote, "there can be no question that the challenged restrictions, if enforced, will cause irreparable harm," end quote.

Now, setting aside the fact that some of these restrictions at issue had already been eased before the court weighed in, we wanted to get perspective from three people who are trying to seek that balance between observance and safety every day. These are the three religious leaders we've been checking in with from time to time amid the pandemic. Joining me once again are Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld. He leads the Modern Orthodox congregation at Ohev Sholom, the National Synagogue in Washington, D.C.

Rabbi, welcome back.

SHMUEL HERZFELD: Thank you for having me, Michel.

MARTIN: The Reverend Thomas McKenzie serves at the Church of the Redeemer, an Anglican church in Nashville, Tenn.

Reverend McKenzie, thank you so much for joining us once again.

THOMAS MCKENZIE: Very glad to be here.

MARTIN: And Imam Rizwan Ali is the religious director at the Islamic Center of Naperville in Naperville, Ill.

Imam, nice to have you back with us as well.

RIZWAN ALI: Thank you. Honored to be here.

MARTIN: So as we said, the Supreme Court has taken issue with laws that were - or, rather, directives that were intended to limit religious gatherings. Justice Neil Gorsuch voted in the majority in the New York case that we mentioned earlier, and he wrote a concurring opinion that said, it is time - past time to make plain that while the pandemic poses many grave challenges, there is no world in which the Constitution tolerates color-coded executive edicts that reopen liquor stores and bike shops but shutter churches, synagogues and mosques.

So I'm going to ask each of you to give me your reaction to this. And, Rabbi, I'm going to start with you, in part because the New York case involved two synagogues and an Orthodox Jewish organization. And I understand that you read the opinion. So what do you think about that?

HERZFELD: I believe that what people - gets people really upset is the inconsistency of seeing bars open and restaurants open and then synagogues closed because for many people I know who I spend time with, it's much more essential to be able to go and pray every day than to be able to go to a bar or to a restaurant.

But at the same time, I would have liked to have seen and - from the state and from the synagogues, a desire to work out a safe solution. Like, what we do in our congregation is we pray outside. We've been praying outside no matter the temperature. There's a way to do this safely and to accommodate religious concerns. And I was disappointed in the state and in those synagogues for not trying to figure out a safe way to pray outside.

MARTIN: Reverend McKenzie, what about you?

MCKENZIE: There is obviously tension right now between religious liberty and also safety. But it seems to me like safety has to triumph ultimately because otherwise, we're not loving our neighbors if we're bringing COVID to them. And I just wish that the church would be the leader in safety instead of having to be told what to do.

MARTIN: Imam, what about you?

ALI: We try to shift our focus on education and moral responsibilities and, you know, getting the medical personnel involved. It's very important for us to be able to make our decision. So we, as - we don't have the directives from the state to close, but we decided to close because we saw an increase in the number of cases in our community and Illinois as a whole. So we didn't wait for the state to make any type of directive. We took it upon ourselves, with consultation with our medical professionals and with other Islamic centers. And many Islamic centers decided to close for about a month now, just so the numbers go down a little bit. And then we'll reconvene and decide whether it's safe to reopen or not.

MARTIN: So, Imam, I was wondering about that because where you are, the city council voted not to have a mask mandate, and they just issued recommendations and, as you said, that they are not requiring places to shut down. But you had - at one of the Islamic centers, somebody did test positive, so you did shut down out of an abundance of caution. How did that go over with congregants?

ALI: So in the community, what happened was there was mixed responses. Some of the people were upset, and they thought that we were overreacting. And others reached out, very appreciative, especially the medical professionals. They said that the situation in the hospital - there's no beds, and you guys are really helping us by closing. And others also contacted us and appreciated the decision that we made because they had elderly relatives that if the mosque was open, they were going to be insistent on going, and they were appreciative that we made that decision.

So we're trying to balance both sides, but we're trying to use our religious principles and exercise - we put our trust in God, but we have to take our precautions as well.

MARTIN: One of the things about the - Justice Gorsuch's opinion that sort of struck me was that - you know, I don't spend a lot of time in liquor stores or bike shops (laughter), frankly. But it strikes me that one of the tensions here is that what we do in those places is different from what we tend to do in worship - I mean, praying out loud, singing in chorus, being in close proximity.

Imam, you were telling us that people stand - that part of the prayer experience is standing shoulder to shoulder. Part of those are known to be activities that because this is a respiratory virus are dangerous. And so the behavior is different.

And I'm just - it just seems interesting to me or strange to me in a way that the behavior itself wasn't what was attacked. It was the place. And I just - I wonder, like, how you even talk about this with your congregants or how you even think about that. Rabbi, you want to start?

HERZFELD: Well, I think the inconsistency in the guidelines from the state and from the government is very unfortunate. And if it's talking about behavior, then they could have mandated about behavior. But they said, you could gather in bar, and bars are places where, often, people sing. And you can pray together - and you're limiting prayer in a congregation. There's a way to pray with muting singing. You know, you're not required to sing in order to pray. And so as long as the state is going to be continuing to be inconsistent, it's sending a very, very unfortunate message. And that's, to me, the core problem.

MARTIN: Reverend McKenzie, thoughts?

MCKENZIE: It is possible to do what we do safely. I mean, for instance, in our congregation, for all this time, we've had - we've been online. We've also been in person since after the beginning of it. And people - we have to - people have to sign up for seats, and we are social distanced. You have to wear a cloth face covering over your nose and mouth the entire time. Like, the way we do Communion is super antiseptic. Like, it is a very safe environment - much more safe, in my opinion, than going into a restaurant where, by definition, everyone has to take their masks off. So the inconsistency of you can have a restaurant open, but you can't go to church, where they are making sure that everything is safe, doesn't make any sense.

And the greater issue is that we - is that the First Amendment doesn't guarantee the right to go to a bar or restaurant, but it does guarantee the right to practice religion. And I think that's also part of this issue as well, is that there's a higher level of guarantee afforded to religion than there is to yoga studios and bars and restaurants.

MARTIN: Well, that kind of leads me where I wanted to go next. I want to ask each of you - this whole experience, this coronavirus pandemic, the steps that we're all taking to kind of deal with it, try to contain it has changed the way many of us have to function in every aspect of our lives. We're doing things we didn't do before, or we're not doing things we did do before, or we're doing things we didn't think we could do.

So I just wanted to ask, you know, again whether this has kind of changed your understanding of how you can worship or what worship means or has given you some perspectives that you didn't have before. So, Imam Ali, do you want to start?

ALI: It's changed the way that we kind of view on what's essential and what's very important in terms of our religious practices. There are certain things that we've kind of taken for granted and assumed that, you know, this has to be done for worship to be authentic and acceptable. But then we've gone back to the tradition and said, OK, how can we accommodate some of our practices? And we find that our religion has things built in. Yes, in normal situations, we stand shoulder to shoulder, foot to foot. But because of this situation, there's nothing preventing us from standing 6 feet apart and praying - you know, wearing masks while praying, doing temperature checks, having QR codes.

But I realize that we have to focus on the essentials and what's most important. And the overall teachings of the religion take precedence over some of the practices that we used to think were essential. But they're important. But the essential aspects are even more important, which includes keeping everybody safe within the community.

MARTIN: Reverend McKenzie.

MCKENZIE: I have not changed the way I think about worship in the least. We've obviously had to do things differently to make up for this. But my concern is that people in my congregation will change the way they think about worship. My concern is that people will become comfortable with staying at home and watching us on, you know, the TV rather than actually participating in real life.

And there's something in our religion that is - like, incarnation and being in the flesh and bone is really important to us. And, yes, we can suspend it for a certain amount of time, but ultimately, we have to be that.

MARTIN: Rabbi, what about you - final thought from you?

HERZFELD: I've found personally, and I know that other members of my congregation have told me, that this has been some of the most meaningful prayer services of their entire life. So I would encourage everybody to try and figure out how the sacrifices we have to make during these days also gives us the incredible opportunity to connect to our creator through prayer.

MARTIN: That was Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld of Ohev Sholom, the National Synagogue here in Washington, D.C. We also heard from Imam Rizwan Ali of the Islamic Center of Naperville in Naperville, Ill., and Pastor Thomas McKenzie from the Church of the Redeemer in Nashville, Tenn.

Rabbi, Imam, Pastor Thomas, thank you so much for talking with us once again. I'm so glad we've been able to have these conversations, and I hope they'll continue.

HERZFELD: Thank you for having me, Michel.

ALI: Thank you for having us.

MCKENZIE: Thank you very much.