I’m on record supporting a wide range of religious exemptions for all kinds of people. And I only sometimes oppose them. But I am now concerned, quite concerned, that demands for religious exemptions from lockdown policies risk imposing harms on others. When religious worshippers gather together in large numbers, they can easily spread the virus, and risk infecting hundreds and thousands of others.
In other posts, and some articles, I’ve outlined what I take to be the principles that license religious exemptions. I think religious exemptions from a law morally ought granted whenever the following four conditions are met:
(1) The law is endorsed by the subset of the population whose support makes the law democratically legitimate (something like a majority).
(2) The law places a substantial burden on the integrity or conscience of religious citizens (or secular citizens), or considerably sets back their fundamental interests.
(3) The exemption is feasible. Government can detect burdened citizens, exempt them without enormous costs, and typically root out fraudulent exemption claims.
(4) The exemption economizes on third party harms.
All of these principles are fairly straightforward (but if you want more clarification, see the post linked above). The key in this case is principle (4). On my view, religious exemptions can be restricted if they impose third-party harms or significant risks of third-party harms. The trouble for religious exemptions for large church gatherings is that, under current conditions, such gatherings impose risks of third-party harms because they create sites for transmission of COVID. By refusing to engage in social distancing, these worshippers put others at risk. Now, people of faith have extremely strong reason to worship, but they don’t necessarily have strong reason to worship in physical proximity to one another during a pandemic since they can worship in other ways, and the leaders of many religious organizations have created other ways for them to do so (such as drive-thru services and online services, both of which I have benefited from) and strictly directed them not to attend services in person.
So it is not clear to me that people of faith have sufficiently strong reasons to reject these restrictions because their faith does not require that they meet. So, strictly speaking, the restrictions are a substantial burden, but the risk of infecting people, at least in certain areas, is a much greater burden.
But here’s the trouble: we don’t know exactly how much risk we’re imposing on others by gathering to worship, but we have a much better sense of the concrete losses to churches and parishioners for not being able to worship. Churches, like any other institution, can lose money, but the bigger issue is that there’s an enormous loss in being isolated from fellow believers. So the challenge for covid policymakers is to try and figure out whether restrictions should be applied broadly or targeted by region.
I can see a case to be made that in certain sparsely populated parts of the country that the restrictions on church gathering be more modest, whereas in large cities, the rationale for restrictions is stronger. I’m not in a position to make those calls, of course, but I think the principles I’ve laid out are the right ones. In general, we default in favor of religious liberty, but when exemptions pose third-party harms and when the legal restrictions don’t strictly violate the conscience of adherents of the faith, restrictions on church gatherings can be justified rather straightforwardly.