Back in the days of the anti-fracking battle in New York State, I wrote tons of comments to articles in the press. I still occasionally write a comment on a topic of interest. The following is a comment I submitted to an op-ed by Wilton Cardinal Gregory, Archbishop of Washington, DC, in The Washington Post, entitled “Praying apart isn’t the same as praying together. That’s why we sued D.C.” Because the article is behind a paywall, I will synopsize. Cardinal Gregory had sued the city of Washington, DC “to protect the free exercise of religion in the nation’s capital.” There had been a limit of fifty people in religious services, (which was subsequently eased by Mayor Muriel Bowser on December 16th). He pointed out that more than fifty people were allowed in stores and other venues.
I am Catholic and someone who spent years in liturgical service as a musician and a liturgy planner. I was consistently attending mass on weekends and holy days, but I have not attended in person mass since mid-March, choosing instead to participate via televised or online services for safety’s sake.
I don’t think that restrictions on number of people in church attendance is at all an attempt to limit free exercise of religion. Being in church for a service is not like being in a store. In stores, people are mostly silent, not near the same people for any length of time, and spending shorter amounts of time in an enclosed space. In churches, people are in one spot for an extended period, usually about an hour. They are speaking and singing; singing in particular is known to spread droplets much further than six feet. Masks do help prevent virus spread, but they do not do so 100%, so singing presents an additional risk.
Church attendance is more closely analogous to going to an indoor movie or concert. In my state, neither of those activities are allowed at all. Places of worship are allowed with restrictions on numbers in attendance. I think that rather than being overly restrictive, governments have been trying to help faith communities gather in person rather than being totally virtual in worship, while trying to keep risk relatively low.
The virus does not care whether people are in a store or a church or a home or a restaurant. It’s up to all of us to protect ourselves to the extent possible. When government officials are following science in their rules, we should accept that and not think that they are infringing on our rights rather than protecting public health.