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Will Coronavirus End Religious Liberty As We Know It?

Will Coronavirus End Religious Liberty As We Know It?

Along with the tragic loss of human life—more than 123,000 dead worldwide as of this writing—many other conveniences have been lost during the 2020 coronavirus pandemic. Tens of thousands of jobs have disappeared or been placed on furlough, businesses have closed their doors with some never to reopen, and myriads of conferences, meetings, and social gatherings have been cancelled.

Within this unprecedented sphere, one sector in particular, one that is essential to many people the world over, has been deeply affected: religion. In the United States, the issue of religious liberty has come to the forefront.

On Chincoteague Island, Virginia, Pastor Kevin Wilson, who leads the Lighthouse Fellowship church, is fighting back after receiving a police summons that carries penalties of up to a year in jail and a $2,500 fine. Wilson violated the state’s coronavirus restrictions by holding a worship service with six additional members in attendance, exceeding the 10-person limit. 

But attorney Mat Staver, founder and chairman of Liberty Counsel, the law firm representing Wilson and his church, said, “Lighthouse Fellowship Church protected the health and safety of the 16 people by requiring them to be spread far apart in the 293-seat sanctuary. … We need to balance the First Amendment with protecting the health and welfare of people. Using an arbitrary number of 10 people for every church is not the answer.”

Wilson’s congregation may have also influenced his decision, as his church is one that specializes in ministering to those at the margins of society—many of whom do not have Internet access for online services or cars in which to attend “drive-in” meetings.

Church Versus State

Meanwhile, in Hillview, Kentucky, while drive-in worship services are allowed, in-person services are not. On Easter Sunday, despite there being “several piles of nails dumped at the church entrances to the parking lot,” Maryville Baptist Church pastor Rev. Jim Roberts held a program for about 50 congregants anyway, defending his church’s right to do so despite the risk of contagion: “If you read the Constitution of the United States, if you read the constitution of the state of Kentucky, they both say that [Gov. Andy Beshear] is infringing on the church's rights,” Roberts said.

Though Roberts’ church had received several notices to desist gathering, Roberts was adamant about not complying, opting to practice social distancing within the sanctuary and offer hand sanitizers instead.

As a result, law enforcement arrived to issue quarantine notices for each car and write down license plate numbers. In response, several people said “that they had no intention of abiding by the notice on their windshields.” Roberts himself, along with several other of his members, had obstructed the license plate on his car from police.

As for Beshear, he stated his primary motive to be in the interest of the people: “I’m just doing my best to save lives. And there aren’t easy answers.”

In Louisville, one of Kentucky’s main metropolises, another battle was waged. Judge Justin R. Walker of Kentucky’s Western District granted On Fire Christian Church a temporary restraining order against Mayor Greg Fischer and the city of Louisville, lambasting the mayor over his prohibition of drive-in worship services.

“The Mayor's decision is stunning. And it is, ‘beyond all reason,’ unconstitutional,” the judge wrote.

In light of the fact that Louisville’s drive-through restaurants and liquor store pick-up windows remain open, Walker ruled the city’s decision as “underinclusive,” in other words, as discriminating against the church.

In contrast, Fischer himself stated that there was no official ban but that he merely “urged against” such gatherings.

Could It Happen Again?

While the majority of churches are adhering to government restrictions during this pandemic, one thing is certain: Church and state are clashing. Will the actions and reactions of churches during this crisis determine the state’s decisions in the future?

In times of previous unprecedented trial, we have seen major changes take place. “Across Europe, the Middle East, Asia, Africa and the Americas, governments have introduced states of emergency to combat the spread of the new coronavirus, imposing some of the most stringent restrictions on civil liberties since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001,” reported Reuters.

Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, told the news agency that post-9/11 restrictions were accepted in a climate of fear. “People were fearful and asked governments to protect them. Many governments took advantage of that to undermine rights in ways that far outlasted the terrorist threat,” Roth said.

Will coronavirus result in a similar aftermath? Will draconian restrictions on worship be imposed in the absence of a pandemic?

The Bible speaks of a time when a global power—called a “beast”—will enforce its authority by compelling worship. Those who don’t comply will not be able to buy or sell goods, making it difficult, if not impossible, to survive (Revelation 13:16, 17).

The Sabbath and the Mark of the Beast

The “mark” or sign of the beast-power is a day of worship, but it’s the true day of worship—the Bible Sabbath—that is the mark or “seal” of those who follow God. His followers will provoke the enemy’s wrath: “The dragon was enraged with the woman, and he went to make war with the rest of her offspring, who keep the commandments of God and have the testimony of Jesus Christ” (Revelation 12:17).

Today’s bans on worship may be a foretaste of what is coming down the pike. But whether they are or not, infringement on our religious liberty is coming. Our free online Bible study, “The Sabbath and the Mark of the Beast” will give you the information you need to be ready!

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