Coronavirus, Civil Liberties, And Crisis

In California we are in phase 2 of unlocking the public-health lockdown imposed in light of the Coronavirus (Covid-19). One of the costs of the stay-at-home has been a prohibition of all public gatherings. In phase two meetings are now allowed but their size and operation are strictly regulated. Here are just some of the rules we, in our congregation, are following in light of the state’s Covid-19 regulations.

  • If you or any member of your household has symptoms or is sick, please do not attend. Check your temperatures at home before attending. We will not check temps at church.
  • Physical contact is prohibited. We will all have to reign in those first impulses to embrace or shake hands and keep a close watch on our children.
  • Every other pew/row will be utilized for seating. Ushers will guide you in and at the close of service, will release by row.
  • Those in the same household may sit together. Otherwise a minimum of 6 feet will need to be maintained. 6ft = 4 empty seat spaces. Every other pew/row.
  • Touch as few surfaces as possible including doors, doorknobs, tables and pews.
    Where possible, doors will be kept open.
  • We kindly request that you use the restroom at home beforehand. In case of
    emergency/urgency, the foyer restrooms will be open with a limit of two occupants at a time.
  • There will be few printed bulletins. Bulletins will be distributed in advance by email for you to take from home.
  • Hymnals, pew Bibles and forms booklets will not be used.
  • Singing by congregants will not be conducted inside buildings. While wearing
    masks, this would be difficult. Without masks, this would be one of the likely sources of Corona virus transmission. We are working out methods to bring music into our worship in a safe and reasonable manner.
  • Offering bags will not be passed. The offering will be received at the exit doors at the conclusion of each service. Online giving will continue as well.
  • At the conclusion of each service worshipers are requested immediately to leave the building. If you choose to visit in the parking lot, maintain social distancing.
  • The nursery will be closed.
  • No refreshments of any kind will be provided. Please do not share food or drink.
  • Use of masks is required entering and exiting building and we encourage you to
    continue to wearing your mask during service. You are encouraged to bring your
    own masks. A few will be available at the entrance to the foyer.
  • Bring and use hand sanitizer. Touchless hand sanitizer stations are available in the foyer.
  • Parents are encouraged to exercise good judgment in bringing young children and are asked to keep them under close supervision at all times.
  • The foyer and sanctuary will be cleaned between services. If you would like to
    volunteer to help with sanitizing, please contact the church office.

I have read the regulations issued by the state of California. They are bewildering in their complexity. Kudos to our deacons, elders, and ministers for figuring out the maze of, what seemed to me to be, conflicting rules. It is almost as if the State of California said to religious congregations, “Go ahead punks, make our day.”

I write this as one who publicly and repeatedly defended the interest of the civil magistrate in the health and life of citizens. I remonstrated with those pastors who, despite their lack of medical training—seminary graduates have earned a M.Div not a M.D.—posed as public health experts online. I have urged patience, caution, and obedience to the magistrate according to our Confession:

…and hold its representatives in honor and respect, and obey them in all things that are not in conflict with God’s Word, praying for them that the Lord may be willing to lead them in all their ways and that we may live a peaceful and quiet life in all piety and decency.

The outbreak of peaceful protests, however, and on the heels of those, anarchic violence, chaos, looting, and murder, and the concomitant disregard by the various local and state governments for their own public-health orders has brought the continuing legitimacy of those orders into doubt.

Peaceful, non-violent protests are a natural right recognized and protected by the Constitution of the United States. Citizens have a right to assemble and to petition the government for the redress of grievances. Gathering for public worship is also a natural right, endowed to creatures by their Creator, which right is also recognized in Constitution. The Supreme Court, however, has ruled that the executive branch of government has the authority, in extraordinary circumstances, to suspend those liberties briefly in the interest of public health.

As anyone can see, however, the crowds massed together to protest the obviously unjust treatment of George Floyd, which contributed to his death, are not observing social distancing. They are not limited to small groups. There is simply no way to reconcile the behavior and treatment of these large crowds with the public health orders issued by the State of California (and in many other states) and the County of San Diego. Health experts are now warning of a coming spike in Covid-19 cases.

The Reformed Churches also confess the civil magistrate is “ subject to God’s law,
of removing every obstacle to the preaching of the gospel and to every aspect of divine worship.”

When New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio was asked how he justifies permitting crowded protests, where people are chanting, singing, and even screaming (and thus projecting droplets potentially carrying Covid-19) while restricting public religious gatherings (he has been particularly aggressive about policing orthodox Jewish funerals and other such gatherings) he replied:

When you see a nation, an entire nation, simultaneously grappling with extraordinary crisis seeded in 400 years of American racism, I’m sorry, that is not the same question as the understandably aggrieved store owner or the devout religious person who wants to go back to services,” said the mayor. “This is something that’s not about which side of the spectrum you’re on. It’s about a deep, deep American crisis. We have never seen anything quite like what we’ve seen in the last few days. This is a powerful, painful historical moment

This is the very definition of incoherence and unequal treatment under the law. Quite frankly, it is outrageous and makes one think that the restrictions on public worship, especially as the lockdown has continued, has less to do with public health and more to do with sheer ignorance of religion and even bigotry against it.

I am aware that there has been mockery in social media of those who have expressed concern about the restrictions on public worship. I agree with those who have observed that Christians are not being persecuted. Nevertheless, we are still citizens and religious associations in this country are now being treated unequally. This is a matter of constitutionally protected speech and assembly. All Americans should value that regardless of their affection (or lack thereof) for religion. If the government can restrict the exercise of constitutional protected liberties unequally, the atheists are just as much in jeopardy as the religious.

In a recent 5–4 decision (South Bay United Pentecostal Church et al v. Gavin Newsom et al.) the Supreme Court agreed with the State. Chief Justice Roberts justified rejecting the appeal on basis of the dissimilarity between grocery shopping and public worship:

Although California’s guidelines place restrictions on places of worship, those restrictions appear consistent with the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment. Similar or more severe restrictions apply to comparable secular gatherings, including lectures, concerts, movie showings, spectator sports, and theatrical performances, where large groups of people gather in close proximity for extended pe- riods of time. And the Order exempts or treats more leni- ently only dissimilar activities, such as operating grocery stores, banks, and laundromats, in which people neither congregate in large groups nor remain in close proximity for extended periods.

That rationale, however, hardly applies to groups of thousands of people, even if outdoors, chanting, singing, and even screaming about (a real) injustice. If that activity is permissible, so is public worship and arguments to the contrary, such as those made by Mayor de Blasio, are simply being made in bad faith. Such reasoning can do nothing but promote mistrust by citizens of the government and that is bad for the body politic.


    Post authored by:

  • R. Scott Clark
    Author Image

    R.Scott Clark is the President of the Heidelberg Reformation Association, the author and editor of, and contributor to several books and the author of many articles. He has taught church history and historical theology since 1997 at Westminster Seminary California. He has also taught at Wheaton College, Reformed Theological Seminary, and Concordia University. He has hosted the Heidelblog since 2007.

    More by R. Scott Clark ›

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  1. It seems we have entered a period like the “Judges” where everyone does what’s right in their own eyes. Irrespective of what others are doing or the hypocrisy of politicians, the Church is ruled by Scripture. I don’t see how the Word of God is changed by the sinful behavior of pagans. Pagans will behave like pagans. As far as I can determine none of them is a “Nero”.

    If the churches enter into open defiance of the civil magistrates (elected by us) I do not see that as any different from the logic that leads us to what we are seeing in our cities today – anarchy.

    Therefore, if we don’t like the policies of our leaders – vote them out. Under Nero no Roman had an option to vote him out. If we choose the route of anarchy, we may not like who God appoints to rule over us next.

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