George Pyle: A pandemic doesn’t care what you believe

An "Open for Worship" banner is posted outside the Crossroads Community Church in Yuba City, Calif., Thursday, July 9, 2020. Sutter County was one of the first counties to reopen its economy when it defied Gov. Gavin Newsom's stay-at-home order in May to allow restaurants, hair salons, gyms and shopping malls to reopen. But Thursday, the county was added to a state watch list because of its rising number of coronavirus cases and hospitalizations. (AP Photo/Adam Beam)

Mike Lee says, “There is no ‘pandemic’ exception to constitutionally protected rights.”

But it is also true that there is no constitutional exception to a pandemic.

The coronavirus doesn’t care what religion you are. Though it does love it if people gather in large groups, indoors, and speak, or sing, or do other respiratory things that are known to be the most efficient way the virus moves from one often unwitting host to another.

Utah’s senior senator this week called on his friend, the president of the United States, to push states and cities to allow the reopening of churches and religious schools, on pain of losing whatever federal pandemic aid might make its way out of Congress.

Lee may have a point that it is not fair for any government to order a religious organization to cease activities while other operations, businesses and such are allowed to move back to normal. And there certainly is reason to worry that various levels of government — particularly those led by Lee’s fellow Republicans — are showing a preference for activities that involve the exchange and accumulation of cash over any other.

Like staying the hell home in the midst of a virulent plague.

But everyone should understand that it wasn’t government that shut down the economy. Or that closed the churches. It was the pandemic, and wholly reasonable fears of sickness and death, which did that. All government did, with varying degrees of speed and effectiveness, was the equivalent of putting a Bridge Out sign on the highway.

Taking the sign down doesn’t fix the bridge. Taking the sign down certainly isn’t justified by a decision that replacing the bridge is too expensive or will take too long. And you don’t get to ignore the sign if you have a sincerely held belief that the bridge is still there.

It makes sense to worry that Lee’s call is an example of how Republicans feed, and feed off, the fear among religious people that they are a put-upon minority. That being called to account for any anti-social or dangerous behavior is somehow an encroachment on their First Amendment rights.

It is a far too common example of how advocates for religious organizations do exactly what they accuse other groups — notably LGBTQ folks — of doing, seeking not equal rights but special rights. The right to discriminate in public accommodations or to exempt themselves from common health and safety regulations because, well, we’re a religion.

There is a continuum. On one end, praying before dinner, or a calculus final, in a way that other people don’t even notice. On the other end, human sacrifice, selling your daughters into slavery, evil things which you are not allowed to do no matter what religious claims you make.

Somewhere in between is the line, the point where government has not only the ability, but the duty, to step in. That line may sometimes be drawn in the wrong place, but saying that it needs to be drawn is in no way hostile to religious freedom.

In the case of efforts to limit the spread of the coronavirus, there are no grounds for churches to be held to a higher, or a lesser, standard.

If the worst that could happen was that a congregation of willing participants would be struck by an outbreak and, Jim Jones-style, all drop dead where they stood, there might be a justification for a call to be exempt from government interference.

Unless there were children present, who by definition cannot consent to such risky behavior.

Or unless there was the very real possibility that the germs picked up in church would spread to others of different, or no, faith.

Which is a very real threat and the reason why faith is no reason to ignore basic health guidelines.

As Jesus might have said, render onto Dr. Fauci that which he knows about. And credit God with the wish that his followers will not suffer and die.

George Pyle

George Pyle, editorial page editor of The Salt Lake Tribune, has a sincerely held belief that Rocky Road ice cream has no calories.


Twitter, @debatestate