This week, the discussion about COVID-19 has been pretty heated. I listened to Dr. Russell Moore’s interview with Dr. Francis Collins yesterday. Dr. Moore is president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC), a commissioned organization of the Southern Baptist Convention. Dr. Collins is a faithful follower of Jesus, a Physician with an impressive resume, and the Director of the National Institute of Health (NIH).
The two discussed the virus and what they believed the church should be concerned about amid the pandemic. Dr. Collins recommended that the church stay very conservative on the restrictions as the virus continues to spread far more rapidly than in past months. They also discussed the timing of a vaccine and reopening. Dr. Collins predicts that our society will begin a move back towards normality as soon as a vaccine is released, which could be in the next few weeks. He emphasized that the rollout and manufacturing process is such that we will probably not feel any sense of normality until late in March or April.
The vaccine is a curious topic because we don’t know how many people will submit to the vaccine due to safety or outright defiance questions. According to a recent Gallup poll, 42% of Americans say they will refuse the vaccine. Many say that a vaccine is not worth ‘the risk,’ citing the length of time it typically takes to test a vaccine and get it into production. Others claim that the vaccine is merely a political move, and no actual need to take a vaccine.
Dr. Collins emphasized that the vaccine is not a political tool. According to his involvement in the process, he believes that the vaccine is moving faster due to great need. Agencies and private groups have allocated far more resources to the testing and production of a COVID-19 vaccine than with other viruses.
I believe that the production of the vaccine is not political. However, I am skeptical that political forces are not leveraging the virus and the vaccine to accomplish political purposes. That’s just politics, and I don’t think there is any secret about it. However, I am intrigued by the data. The current frontrunner in vaccine production is testing at 95% efficacy compared to our flu vaccines that average 40% efficacy year-to-year. And we all know how many lives have been saved by the flu vaccine. So there is that. However comical it seemed to many at the beginning of the pandemic, a vaccine is indeed more hopeful of a resolution today.
Many California churches continue to fight for their right to gather indoors for worship on the religious liberty front. Other churches are outright denying any mandates in the name of religious freedom. I said this before, but I do not believe that the government is intentionally persecuting churches. I think that secular governing agencies are merely ignorant of churches’ unique needs and our expectations for what religious freedom should look like in times of duress.
The LA Times reported on a recent ruling in the Federal Supreme Court this week. Quote, “The Supreme Court told California judges on Thursday to take another hard look at state rules that ban most indoor worship services.” The reports are sketchy as far as what we are allowed to do because of this information. Some sources are saying that the Supreme Court overturned the state’s ruling. Others are saying that the Supreme Court is asking the state to reevaluate its verdict. My understanding is that the federal government cannot demand anything of the state. Although I am no lawyer, I do not believe there are any changes to our circumstances until the State of California says so. Besides, neither the state nor the Supreme Court has produced a document regarding a shift in churches’ regulations.
The State of California released a statement about COVID-19 restrictions yesterday. They included a Q&A section that answers questions about current regulations on religious gatherings. Note the following sample of quotations:
Can I go to church?Yes. Places of worship such as churches, mosques, temples, and synagogues can open throughout the state, with modifications for safety (PDF). In counties in the Widespread (purple) tier, indoor services in places of worship must be discontinued but outdoor and online services are permitted.
Can I practice my religious faith?Yes. Practicing your faith is a constitutionally-protected activity and may manifest in many different forms…the State Public Health Officer now authorizes County Departments of Public Health to allow collective activities at places of worship, subject to conditions that support a safe, clean environment for employees, interns and trainees, volunteers, scholars, and all other types of workers as well as congregants, worshippers, and visitors.
What conditions must be met to resume religious services and cultural ceremonies at places of worship?Places of worship may only open indoor operations when permitted by relevant local restrictions and must comply with all applicable attendance limitations and guidance requirements…At a minimum, outdoor attendance should be limited naturally through implementation of strict physical distancing measures of a minimum of 6 feet between attendees from different households, in addition to other relevant protocols within this document.
When will current conditions change for places of worship?The California Department of Public Health, in consultation with county Departments of Public Health, will regularly review and assess the impacts of these imposed limits on public health and provide further direction as part of a phased-in restoration of activities in places of worship.
It seems clear that the State of California has no intention of responding to the Supreme Court but will evaluate the situation on a State and Local jurisdiction.
We do, however, take the Supreme Court’s ruling as hopeful. There is much to be thankful for in this ruling. This is not the first time churches have been treated differently from other organizations by the State of California and by local governments. Whatever comes of this will set a precedent for religious freedom to be evaluated in many government sectors moving forward.
As of right now, Sonrise Church will continue to worship outdoors on Sunday mornings. Please watch the website for up-to-date information.