(RNS) — As the pandemic caused by the novel coronavirus continues to threaten the U.S., governors of states and districts across the country have issued sweeping stay-at-home or shelter-in-place orders in an effort to slow the spread of the disease.
But as the crisis drags on, a looming question has emerged: Should religious groups — some of which are in the midst of major seasons of celebration — be included in the bans on large gatherings amid the threat of COVID-19, or is that an infringement on religious rights?
Most states have issued stay-at-home orders that include bans on gatherings larger than 10 people and encourage social distancing of 6 feet but do not clearly indicate how those regulations apply to worship communities.
Some states have taken the step to prohibit faith groups from worshipping in person, pointing to several instances in the U.S. and abroad of the virus spreading during religious services. Others have carved out exemptions that allow religious groups to gather under certain circumstances, and still others permit religious assemblies without any formal restrictions whatsoever.
The issue has already sparked controversy: Just this week, Republican leaders in the Kansas Legislature overturned Gov. Laura Kelly’s order limiting religious gatherings to 10 people, prompting the governor to explore a legal challenge. Meanwhile, pastors in Florida and Louisiana have been arrested for continuing to gather large groups at their churches despite regulations, and a representative from Maryland State Police told Religion News Service that at least 12 houses of worship in the state "were found in violation" of the stay-at-home order by gathering in-person despite regulations.
To better understand these developments, RNS has constructed a map to track how these orders relate to religious groups and worship services.
A note about methodology: RNS staff collected the data below by reading the text of each state order, reaching out to the offices of each governor and examining public statements of lawmakers regarding religious worship amid the pandemic. The categories indicate religious exemptions, but caution should be used before drawing broad conclusions: Some states that exempt religious communities by name also impose restrictions that, in effect, allow faith groups to worship only in limited ways that are also permitted in states that do not exempt faith groups.
RNS will update the map as we get new information or as orders change.
Statewide orders with religious exemptions
Although it is not specified in Gov. Ned Lamont’s initial statewide order, a representative from his office clarified to RNS that the order’s restrictions “do exempt religious gatherings.”
Gov. Ron DeSantis’ statewide order explicitly exempts religious gatherings, listing them as “essential activities.” When asked about religious services, DeSantis told reporters, “There’s no reason why you can’t do a church service with people six feet apart.”
Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s order notes that religious communities are “not subject to penalty” as other businesses or organizations are. A spokesperson from the governor’s office added that while Whitmer is still encouraging faith groups to gather in ways other than in person, the exemption was included “due to separation of church and state and upon request from the Legislature.”
Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s order does not prohibit in-person worship, although a spokesperson noted to RNS that “services should voluntarily limit or cancel in-person gatherings, however, in the interest of public health.”
A spokesperson from Gov. Tom Wolf’s office explained that the state’s stay-at-home order “does not affect the operations of religious institutions (under additional guidance),” explaining that “religious leaders are encouraged to find alternatives to in-person gatherings and to avoid endangering their congregants, but they will not be cited for gathering.”
The spokesperson added: “With important religious holidays approaching, we are counting on faith leaders to do the right thing and protect worshipers by encouraging adherence to social distancing guidelines.”
Gov. Henry McMaster’s recent statewide order exempts religious services. A spokesperson for the governor noted that McMaster has also suggested churches “try to; a) stream services online, and if they can’t do that b) hold services outdoors with plenty of room for social distancing, and as a last resort c) hold it indoors while following all guidance from public health experts in terms of public hygiene and social distancing.”
Gov. Jim Justice’s order lists “going to and from an individual’s place of worship” as an “essential activity” exempted from its main provision. It also specifies that religious gatherings “should still practice proper social distancing of six feet between persons to the greatest extent possible.”
Statewide orders with religious exemptions, but with restrictions
Gov. Kay Ivey’s statewide order lists religious services as “essential activities” that are exempt from its broader restrictions. However, religious worship services, weddings or funerals must involve “fewer than 10 people and the people maintain a consistent six foot distance from one another” or be a “drive-in” worship service in which participants remain in their vehicles – shared only with residents of the same household — for the entirety of the service.
According to a spokesperson for Gov. Jared Polis, while the state’s initial stay-at-home order does not list worship services as “critical,” a subsequent order by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment does list houses of worship alongside “in-person pastoral services” as critical. The health order states that houses of worship may remain open but are “encouraged to implement electronic platforms to conduct services whenever possible or to conduct smaller (10 or fewer congregants), more frequent services to allow strict compliance with Social Distancing Requirements.”
In addition, the governor’s office has published additional guidance for faith communities celebrating Easter, Passover, and Ramadan, outlining methods for conducting “drive-in” services that strictly limit any in-person interaction as well as methods for setting up broadcasting equipment for an online church service.
A representative from Gov. Brian Kemp’s office said the state’s order does allow faith groups to continue to operate in a limited capacity: “In short, churches can continue to operate if they abide by social distancing and implement the expanded social distancing and sanitation protocols on Attachment B of the order.”
Gov. Eric Holcomb’s stay-at-home order lists faith communities as “essential businesses” so church leadership may continue to serve their community. However, a representative from the governor’s office noted the order only allows faith groups to continue to gather if they “follow the CDC guidance on social gathering which limits gatherings to ten people or less.”
Gov. Mike Parson’s recent stay-at-home order carved out an exemption allowing for residents to go “to and from an individual’s place of worship,” but only if they comply with social distancing recommendations and “limitations on social gatherings” that include barring assemblies of more than 10 people.
Parson addressed the limits during a press conference on Friday, April 10, saying, “Some of the hardest decisions I’ve had to make have been orders that impact how Missourians of faith can gather and worship during this crisis.”
He then added: “No virus, no government, no piece of paper, nothing can keep us from worshiping.”
Gov. Roy Cooper’s order notes that religious gatherings can continue but restricts them to no more than 10 people assembled in the same room. There is an additional exception for funerals, which are allowed to gather 50 people or fewer so long as they observe social distancing “to the extent practicable.”
Updated guidance for Gov. Mike DeWine’s order lists “religious facilities, entities and groups and religious gatherings, including weddings and funerals,” as “essential.” However, wedding receptions are subject to a 10-person limit.
A representative from Gov. Kate Brown’s office said that while the state’s order technically allows for religious gatherings to occur, it prohibits “spiritual or faith-based gatherings of 25 people or more if a distance of at least three feet between individuals cannot be maintained.”
Gov. Bill Lee’s order does not mandate that religious groups close and lists them as “essential services.” However, religious groups are instructed to maintain social distancing practices and observe CDC guidelines — which include avoiding gatherings of more than 10 people — to “the greatest extent practicable.”
Gov. Tony Evers’ statewide order lists religious gatherings as “essential” but stipulates that “any gathering includes fewer than 10 people in a room or confined space at a time and individuals adhere to social distancing requirements as much as possible.”
Statewide orders that do not exempt religious groups
District of Columbia
A representative for Washington, DC Mayor Muriel Bowser’s office explained that the district’s stay-at-home order bars large gatherings of ten or more people — including religious gatherings. In addition, houses of worship “can maintain basic business operations, and many open their doors to people who walk in who want a quiet place to pray alone.”
Gov. David Ige’s order does not list religious communities or gatherings as exempt from its restrictions, and a representative from his office clarified to RNS that the stay-at-home social distancing guidelines “includes religious organizations.”
Gov. Laura Kelly’s original order reportedly exempted religious gatherings, but when state public health officials traced coronavirus outbreaks (and three deaths) to a handful of worship services, she expanded the order to limit religious gatherings to 10 people. Leaders of the state Legislature quickly voted to throw out the restriction, but the Kansas Supreme Court sided with Kelly the day before Easter Sunday, voting to keep the restriction in place.
Gov. Andy Beshear issued an order on March 19 barring all mass gatherings, including those labeled as “faith-based.”
A representative from Gov. Larry Hogan’s office said the state’s order does not exempt religious groups. However, his office has issued additional official interpretive guidance outlining how religious groups can continue to gather in different ways in compliance with the order, such as drive-in services or in groups of fewer than 10 people.
Gov. Steve Bullock’s office recently extended stay-at-home order prohibits “all public and private gatherings of any number of people occurring outside a household or living unit,” and does not list religious gatherings among the list of “essential activities” for which denizens are able to leave their homes.
When asked if religious gathers were exempted, a representative from Gov. Bullock’s office replied:
“We have worked with many on educating social distancing and have been referring individual inquiries to local health, who seem to be applying the standard of no gatherings of 10 or more. Social distancing directives are enforceable by local public health in Montana, but we have not heard of non-compliance by places of worship.”
Gov. Steve Sisolak’s recent stay-at-home order bars all religious gatherings — including drive-in services — over 10 people. His office also issued additional guidance encouraging Nevadans to worship using online tools because "right now, nobody should be physically attending in-person worship services, including drive-in and pop-up services."
A spokesperson for Gov. Phil Murphy’s office told RNS that while the state’s order allows residents to leave their homes for religious reasons, it nonetheless restricts “all gatherings, so a gathering at a house of worship would violate the order.”
A representative for Gov. Gina Raimondo said the recent statewide order “limits gatherings to no more than 5 people and requires everyone to stay at home unless they are commuting to work or performing an essential task, such as going to the grocery store or pharmacy. This restriction includes in-person faith gatherings.”
Gov. Phil Scott’s stay-at-home order does not mention religious groups by name, but his office issued additional guidance stating that the risk of spreading the coronavirus “requires religious organizations to suspend worship in a brick and mortar setting” before adding “when conducting alternative worship services, organizations are directed to eliminate in-person contact.”
Gov. Ralph Northam’s statewide order singles out religious services as subject to a prohibition against “all public and private in-person gatherings of more than ten individuals.”
However, while religious services are not exempt from the order, state officials do offer guidelines for how religious communities could gather in ways that are similar to states that exempt religious groups, such as drive-in worship and gatherings of fewer than 10 people.
Gov. Jay Inslee’s order specifically instructs residents to “immediately cease participating in all public and private gatherings and multi-person activities for social, spiritual and recreational purposes, regardless of the number of people involved,” and later stipulates that such gatherings include “faith-based” activities.
Gov. Gavin Newsom original stay-at-home order does not appear to exempt religious groups, and he has discussed the possibility of enforcement against religious groups that continue to gather in the state.
However, a group of pastors are now suing him in federal court, arguing that his order is “criminalizing the free exercise of religion” by preventing people from attending church services.