Image via Shutterstock. Amid COVID-19 outbreak, some NC churches want to reopen.
Image via Shutterstock.

A North Carolina faith leader says a lawsuit urging the state to reopen churches misuses the Bible and endangers everyone.

One might think that at the heart of the question of reopening churches in the midst of a global pandemic would be the safety and well-being of congregants. 

One might also assume that religious leaders would consider the narrative of our faith and how it might guide our decisions. The absence of these considerations in the public debate have me a bit perplexed as I listen to the outcry from some of our state’s religious leaders, and their call to Gov. Roy Cooper to reopen churches for in-person worship services. 

I am further confounded by the recent ruling of a judge to overrule the governor’s guidelines which take into consideration the health and safety of our communities and state. The judge’s temporary order comes after two Baptist churches, a minister and a Christian revival group filed a lawsuit against the governor on May 14, saying his executive order violates their First Amendment right to freedom of religion and other constitutional rights.

I believe that the Bill of Rights is the most treasured document we have as citizens of the United States. It provides the framework for how we, as a nation, live out the ideals of our founding forbearers—detailing both rights and privileges for every citizen. And while we must acknowledge that we have not lived up to its ideals, nor those set forth in the preamble to our United States Constitution, the Bill of Rights is a steady aspirational guide for us as we seek to form a more perfect union for all people. 

With that said, it must be noted that the First Amendment is not absolute. Nor, for the gun-toting ‘Reopen American’ and ‘Reopen Churches’ protestors, is the Second Amendment.

“Is it a violation of our Christian faith to knowingly and recklessly put the life of our neighbor in death’s way for the purpose of congregating, when congregating is not necessary to worship God?”

An absolute First Amendment would argue that those freedoms (to assemble, to speech, to religion, to the press, and to petition), are always, and under all circumstances, protected at the individual level. And yet, in our nation’s history, courts have time and again recognized that the First Amendment (and the Second Amendment), have to be considered in the context of if and how they might impinge on the rights of others. 

If my right to speech endangers another’s life, the court has set limits. If my right to religion discriminates against others, the court has set limits. These legal precedents are numerous and clear. 

What has become clear to me is that the reopen movement, especially when it comes to reopening churches, is more politically motivated than spiritually motivated. 

To argue reopening our churches based on First Amendment rights in the midst of an unprecedented highly contagious global pandemic in which over 90,000 Americans have died is disingenuous. 

It exposes just how deep our political divide has corrupted us as people of faith and our religious institutions. To think that we would use a sacred right — the freedom of religion — to knowingly and willingly put people in harm’s way is an unconscionable act for people of faith, the same people who supposedly value the dignity and sanctity of every life.

A more appropriate question for religious leaders to ask right now is: Is it a violation of our Christian faith to knowingly and recklessly put the life of our neighbor in death’s way for the purpose of congregating, when congregating is not necessary to worship God?

For over 500 years, the Bible has been used to condemn and condone all kinds of human behaviors. 

Our sacred scriptures have been used to condone and condemn slavery. We know that slavery is wrong. 

They have been used to condemn and condone Prohibition in the U.S. Our sacred texts have been used to condemn divorced persons to the fires of hell. They have been co-opted to oppress and heap spiritual abuse on women and same-gender loving people. 

Since the first Bible came into print in 1454, it has been used and misused for religious, spiritual and political warfare among believers. In this, the year of our Lord 2020, and the year of an unprecedented global pandemic, both the Bible and religion are still being used for division rather than unity among God’s people.

I am sure that those religious leaders who stood around our State Capitol to protest the governor’s guidelines for churches could, in addition to quoting the First Amendment, quote scripture after scripture to support their protest. 

Sadly, it’s the way we have come to use our sacred texts,those that frame our faith and democracy. 

In response, I would simply offer the words of Jesus as found in the gospel of Matthew: “For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there.” 

Why now, when most Sundays Christian churches in our nation are at best half-filled, are Christians feeling such a burning desire to put others at risk by gathering in large groups for in-person worship?