The Coronavirus and Religious Freedom


The coronavirus pandemic has prompted serious review by governments, businesses, organizations and communities of various aspects of their day-to-day operations, as each seeks to innovate or adjust in an effort to protect public health and safety. Many of the changes are likely to continue long after the pandemic subsides; others will not. Among the restrictions we hope to jettison quickly are those imposed on the operations of religious institutions.

In a thoughtful article published last week in Tablet Magazine, Professor Michael A. Helfand of the Pepperdine Caruso School of Law framed the issue as follows: “The coronavirus crisis is a watershed moment for religious liberty. Government officials, presented with an unprecedented public health crisis, are making complex decisions in real time — and those decisions are increasingly clashing with the beliefs of faith communities who look to their institutions to provide meaning in increasingly frightening times.”

Our community is very familiar with the restrictions. Synagogues are closed; religious services or gatherings or all sorts have been prohibited; funerals, shivas, bar and bat mitzvahs, weddings and brises are limited to immediate family members only; and larger communal gatherings or religious observances have been relegated to Zoom. While we understand and accept the reasons for the restrictions, they are, unquestionably, limiting.

But so long as the restrictions on religious practice are the same as those imposed on secular activities, most of us don’t have a problem with them. But not everyone. That was the case with the painfully slow acceptance of school and synagogue closure orders and social distancing requirements within certain haredi communities, which continue to chafe against the rules even now — as the very large gathering in late April for the funeral of a revered rabbi in Brooklyn made clear.

The Brooklyn funeral did not implicate the First Amendment’s religious freedom issues that Helfand wrote about. It was, instead, a simple violation of uniformly applied local laws prohibiting such gatherings, and was properly dispersed by the police. Unfortunately, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio issued an ill-advised tweet (for which he has since apologized) that blamed the “Jewish community” for the violation. The tweet provoked the anger and disdain of much of the organized Jewish world. While de Blasio’s intentions may have been pure (“This is about stopping this disease and saving lives. Period,” he said), his execution was inept. Scapegoating the “Jewish community” at a time when people are feeling scared and uncertain about the future fuels anti-Semitism. Neither de Blasio’s careless tweet nor his subsequent apology did anything to address those sensitivities.

There is a lot to be said about the delicate balance of public health concerns against constitutionally protected religious rights. Those issues deserve to be addressed carefully and thoughtfully — not in a fit of anger, or even justifiable frustration.

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