Keeping church buildings closed is not a Constitutional Infringement. Not even close. Here’s how I know.
The Federal Government and the government of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania (where our church is located and who’s jurisdiction we fall under) aren’t trying to stop worship. In fact, many government officials have offered supportive words for worship to continue – albeit in an alternative form than in-person.
There is not one news story in this nation about troops or police showing up at a pastor’s house, or a sanctuary, or anywhere else that a recording of worship or a live streaming of worship (with no in-person gathering) is taking place for. Not one. No government is trying to stop virtual worship. No one is trying to stop Zoom worship or Facebook live worship. No government agency is hacking into websites or shutting down church websites to prevent worship from happening. No public declarations are being made about efforts to stop worship from happening. No pastors are being jailed for leading virtual worship.
Virtual, and other forms of socially distanced worship is being publicly shared and disseminated and there are absolutely no efforts or attempts to stop worship from happening.
No church anywhere has to do worship in hiding when they do it virtually or through social distance precautions.
This isn’t about an evil government trying to step on Constitutional rights or squash churches and their First Amendment rights to worship.
The language of the First Amendment states the following:
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”
There is no establishment being dealt with here, so let’s set that aside. I think we can all agree with that.
Now onto the second part – “…prohibiting the free exercise thereof…” First of all, the Amendment deals with Congress making laws – it’s right at the beginning of the Amendment. Congress is the subject of the Amendment. Congress has not done any type of law pertaining to COVID-19 in relation to religion. It has been state governments who have made recommendations and rules. But even with that in mind, there is not a prohibition of the free exercise of religion going on. We are worshipping just as we were before, just in a different platform. As I mentioned before, no one is trying to stop the church from worshipping.
Here in Pennsylvania we look to the Pennsylvania Constitution which says in Article 1, Section 3:
All men have a natural and indefeasible right to worship Almighty God according to the dictates of their own consciences; no man can of right be compelled to attend, erect or support any place of worship, or to maintain any ministry against his consent; no human authority can, in any case whatever, control or interfere with the rights of conscience, and no preference shall ever be given by law to any religious establishments or modes of worship.
The governor has not violated this. First, the governor never dictated to churches that they must close their buildings – it has always been a recommendation. And many churches have followed this recommendation for the safety of their congregations. They did this willingly as a precaution based on sound science. This isn’t about living in fear – it’s about loving our neighbor and not willingly doing anything that could cause harm to our neighbor.
If you want to worship in person, you are free to do that. Gather together with other likeminded people. Sing together if you wish. Shake hands if you want to. Do it in a place that you want that you have legal access to and are welcome to be in.
Just don’t demand anyone else accommodate you. Don’t demand that your pastor attend and risk exposing themselves and their loved ones to a virus through you. You do not have a right to control your pastor or church leadership to accommodate your demands. Keep in mind this clause in the PA Constitution – “no man can of right be compelled to attend, erect or support any place of worship, or to maintain any ministry against his consent.” Your freedom does not demand other comply with you and your desires. Those who wish to follow the safety guidelines have just as much right to withhold from in-person worship as you do to desire in-person worship. And they would still be worshipping because there is no infringement on the right to worship. Is there an inconvenience? Sure. But inconvenience is not the same as violation of rights.
There is no Constitutional violation going on. The church building is closed…for now. But it will reopen. The building is not the church. The people are the church. And the church has always been open, active, living. Regardless of what happens with a building. Worship isn’t a passive activity where we gather to be entertained. Worship isn’t about the focus being on me, me, me. Worship is about God. It’s about gathering together as a community to publicly proclaim that we are not the center of the universe and that following God isn’t about our wants and desires, but rather about conforming to the will of God. Worship is about recognizing our place as creatures in God’s creation. Worship is about dying to self so that we can be encountered by the living God so that we can be transformed and resurrected so that we may serve humbly and proclaim boldly God’s loving work in the cosmos. Worship is about hearing the Word of God as the authority for our lives. Worship is about our desires dying so that Christ can live in us and through us.
At its heart – worship isn’t about us. It’s about God. It’s not about our wishes and desires. It’s about God. If worship is about what we want, then it isn’t worship. Worship is about God.