Maybe what we need most in North Carolina right now is a prayer for judgment.
As in sound judgment, leavened by reason, science and a regard for the greater good.
Unfortunately, that’s not what we’re always getting. A case in point: A federal judge has sided with a group of church leaders and blocked Gov. Roy Cooper’s restrictions on religious services.
To stem the spread of COVID-19, the governor rightly has kept in place tight limits on indoor church services even as he was gradually relaxing rules for businesses. Some church leaders contended that the governor’s order infringed on their constitutionally guaranteed freedom of religion. You can buy liquor at the corner ABC Store, they argued, but you can’t worship in a church sanctuary?
However, indoor church services involve being seated in one place for an extended time. Retail establishments, including liquor stores, involve constantly moving traffic — and still are restricted to 50% capacity. Worship services are allowed outdoors, where the virus is not as easily transmitted, as long as worshippers observe proper social distancing, and indoors, but only if they involve 10 or fewer people.
That line of thinking didn’t satisfy U.S. District Court Judge James C. Dever III, who noted in his ruling that “the Governor appears to trust citizens to perform non-religious activities indoors (such as shopping or working or selling merchandise) but does not trust them to do the same when they worship together indoors.”
As we see it, the issue here isn’t “trust.” It’s a highly communicable disease that thrives in close quarters — and has proven especially transmissible in religious services. On Mother’s Day 180 people were exposed to the novel coronavirus during services at a church in California after a person who had attended later tested positive for COVID-19. The service had been held in defiance of stay-at-home orders. Then there is the communicable disease of political opportunism. Two ill-considered bills in the state House and Senate would exempt religious services from executive orders.
The governor’s cautious and incremental approach to resuming life as we used to know it — or at least a reasonable facsimile thereof — is the right strategy. But he chose not to appeal. So, for now it will be left to faith leaders to decide for themselves. We hope they choose wisely, but we worry. During a Raleigh rally in favor of the lawsuit, speakers cited safety concerns as top-of-mind. Yet many attendees neither wore masks nor practiced social distancing.
Even in light of the ruling, many faith leaders do appear wary of the health risks, including 75 churches, mosques and temples in Charlotte. “Lest we forget, faith communities who sang together, shared meals, and stood shoulder to shoulder were initially hit hardest by the virus,” they said in a collective statement. “Regathering prematurely risks the spike of infection. It is the health, safety, and well-being of our communities and neighbors that motivate us towards making decisions that will care for and protect one another.”
And isn’t that the point of the rules in the first place? Not only to protect yourself and your loved ones but strangers as well — “to love thy neighbour as thyself.”