Religious Freedom in the Age of COVID-19

June 3, 2020

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U.S. flag flies in front of a church

The COVID-19 pandemic has challenged faith communities, especially as physical distancing measures complicate religious gatherings. In the United States, the restriction of gatherings varies on a state-by-state basis. According to Pew Research Center data, most states granted some form of religious exemption to the pandemic rules, but 10 prevent any form of in-person religious meetings. In response, many faith leaders canceled in-person services or moved to virtual platforms, but others continue to hold services in defiance of state orders. The widespread stay-at-home orders are emerging as a new battleground for debates on religious freedom. Some faith communities are suing in federal court, claiming the mandates infringe on their First Amendment right to free exercise of religion. Religious freedom will remain a key concern as the coronavirus crisis continues to change the tone and tenor of everyday life.

Ongoing debates over religious freedom in the COVID-19 pandemic often pit personal liberties against public health response, leading to polarization of the issue. The American public is roughly split along partisan lines when it comes to restricting religious gatherings during the pandemic. In this sense, religious freedom can be said to be part and parcel of the broader coronavirus culture wars, where it is difficult to find common ground on how society should respond to the pandemic. Especially since the exact end of the pandemic remains unclear, it is imperative to find solutions that respect both religious freedom and public health concerns. 

This week the Berkley Forum asks: How can religious communities and American government on the local, state, and national levels find common ground on religious freedom during the pandemic? How can policymakers balance religious freedom and public health concerns? How can ethics and theology inform approaches to social distancing during the coronavirus crisis? Is the pandemic changing debates on religious freedom? If so, how? What might the long-term impact of coronavirus be on U.S. religious freedom?

related event | The COVID-19 Crisis and Restrictions on Religious Gatherings

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