The American Family Association, like Liberty Counsel and other religious-right groups, is portraying the enforcement of social distancing requirements as a threat to religious liberty. “Don’t let the coronavirus turn America into China,” blared an AFA press release distributed Friday. AFA called it “extremely troubling” that some state and local officials have imposed restrictions on public gatherings “that trample religious liberty underfoot.”
AFA sent an action alert to its members last week with a similar message. AFA recognizes that temporary, “evenly applied” public health restrictions “may be permissible,” but said it is “blatantly unconstitutional” for officials to prohibit churches from holding drive-in services “while allowing liquor stores, restaurants, and others to offer drive-in or curbside services.” State and local officials have taken differing approaches to drive-in worship gatherings.
AFA is encouraging activists to tell their governors, “Extraordinary state actions prohibiting the peaceful gathering of American citizens to exercise their religion violate the U.S. Constitution and are not permissible … I want to encourage you stand ready to defend the peaceful gathering of our state’s citizens should their right to do so be infringed upon by any government official or police.”
Some prominent religious-right figures initially resisted and defied social distancing requirements and restrictions on public gatherings, with pastors mocking congregants who stayed home out of fear of the virus, calling other pastors who complied with guidelines “losers,” and suggesting that people who didn’t show up at church and shake hands were “pansies.” But most churches seem to have decided to abide by state and local requirements, with many moving services online.
Religious-right legal and political groups are quick to portray actions taken against religious leaders for violating local guidelines as examples of religious persecution. Portraying American Christians as persecuted, and Donald Trump as their protector, is a central campaign strategy for Trump and his religious-right supporters. Recent protests against stay-at-home orders generated and promoted by right-wing groups suggest that conservative strategists are working hard to shift attention and accountability away from the administration’s failures and direct anger about economic hardship toward state and local officials.
U.S. Attorney General Barr, who has avidly promoted the religious right’s political narrative that religious freedom in the U.S. is threatened by “secularists” and “totalitarian progressives,” declared last week that the Department of Justice would take action if any state or local government “singles out, targets, or discriminates against any house of worship for special restrictions.”
Meanwhile, religious-right groups and their allies in the Trump administration are taking advantage of the pandemic to further their long-term goal of dismantling the separation of church and state.
In addition, the administration is using the religious right’s interpretation of religious liberty to propose new rules that “would actually eliminate certain religious liberty protections for social service beneficiaries.” Melissa Rogers, who led the White House Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnership for several years during the Obama administration, wrote Friday that “none of the Trump administration’s justifications for its actions hold water.”