This story was reported in partnership with Type Investigations.
On Sunday, March 29, the coronavirus death count in the U.S. had reached 2,622 and churches around the country were already worshipping online to keep their congregants safe. But at The River Clermont, a nondenominational charismatic Christian church in Lake County, Florida, a praise and worship band was warming up the crowd as if there was no pandemic. Congregants raised their hands in the air and swayed and sang, much closer together than six feet.
As the performance drew to a close, the church’s pastor, Caleb Ring, took the stage and told attendees to greet someone near them: “Give them a hug, a high-five, a fist bump, tell them you love them, Jesus loves them — unless you don’t want to touch them, and then just give them an air five.”
It’s unclear how many people were inside the church, which did not respond to a request for comment. But in a Facebook video of the service, people can be seen hugging and touching each other.
Ring, who has blonde, curly hair that’s cropped close on the sides and back, gives freewheeling sermons that contain few biblical references but many of miracles and defeating the devil. He explained why he had chosen to gather his followers in person that day. Believers can die of disease, he said. “But the beauty of that is, as a believer, those that are born twice, die once. Death is not a miserable thing for us.”
Ring isn’t the only pastor who has defied public health restrictions despite a significant risk to his own congregation. The next day, his father-in-law, a Trump-friendly Florida televangelist named Rodney Howard-Browne, was arrested and charged with unlawful assembly and violation of public health quarantine for holding two services on March 29.
The services were attended by hundreds at his church, The River at Tampa Bay. Hillsborough County Sheriff Chad Chronister, backed by two local pastors who had been observing stay-at-home orders, declared himself “appalled” and “frightened” by Howard-Browne’s decision to violate a local emergency order limiting gatherings to 10 people.
Across the country, most houses of worship have obeyed the bans on large gatherings in place in more than 35 states. That includes many powerful white evangelical churches that are staunch opponents of government intrusion.
“Some are asking if these sorts of health mandates are a violation of religious liberty,” Russell Moore, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, wrote on March 20. “The short answer is ‘no.’” Vice President Mike Pence, a longtime evangelical ally, has urged the public to limit church gatherings to 10 people and said that he, his wife and President Trump have been “enjoying worship services online.”
But a small number of evangelical and Pentecostal congregations have refused to stop worshipping in person. And at least partly in response to political pressure, governors in a handful of states, including Arkansas and Michigan, have granted exemptions to gathering bans for religious services. Another dozen or so states have a patchwork of orders permitting some form of religious services to continue under various conditions, including size restrictions or requirements for social distancing.
Believers can die of disease, Pastor Caleb Ring said in a sermon. 'But the beauty of that is, as a believer, those that are born twice, die once. Death is not a miserable thing for us.'
Thanks to these exemptions — plus a number of pastors who simply chose to ignore gathering bans — churches held Easter services in Texas, Kansas, Kentucky and elsewhere. Near Cincinnati, Pastor Lawrence Bishop II went forward with Easter services at Solid Rock Church even though the local mayor begged him not to. Louisiana police have repeatedly charged Pastor Tony Spell of Life Tabernacle Church, near Baton Rouge, of violating a state order banning gatherings of more than 50 people. Easter services at Spell’s megachurch drew a reported 1,100 people.
Even though the number of churches continuing to operate is relatively small, they pose a grave risk to their communities. Deadly COVID-19 clusters have been traced back to houses of worship and funerals in Georgia and Kentucky, as well as in France and South Korea.
For many of the rebellious churches, this confrontation is an escalation of a major battle in a decadeslong culture war. For years, activists on the Christian right have claimed to be under attack by an increasingly secular and pluralistic government. In response, they have developed increasingly creative legal arguments that government action on issues such as reproductive and LGBTQ rights is in direct conflict with the religious freedom of Christians.
Their legal advocates have successfully chipped away at church-state separation and expanded their religious liberty rights, often aided by an increasingly friendly Supreme Court. The churches that are fighting for the right to continue worshipping in person are not only threatening efforts to contain the spread of the coronavirus — they’re also using the pandemic as an opportunity to advance their cause.
The Power Of Persecution
Over the second half of the 20th century, after the Supreme Court struck down mandatory school prayer and Bible reading, right-wing evangelical and Catholic activists, lawyers and revisionist historians argued that the separation of church and state was a myth propagated by activist judges and that the country needed to return to its Christian foundations.
In the late 1970s, activists began developing the idea of a Christian law school to teach law from a biblical viewpoint. One was launched at Oral Roberts University, later absorbed into Regent University, the school founded by televangelist Pat Robertson. The goal was to train lawyers to vindicate the rights of Christians besieged by the dictates of secular government.
The claim that people of faith were under threat of persecution by authoritarian secularists became a powerful tool for political mobilization. This theme also fueled intense legal battles against the advance of reproductive and LGBTQ rights and marriage equality. In the run-up to the Supreme Court’s landmark 2015 decision in Obergefell v. Hodges, which made marriage equality the law of the land, Christian right activists including former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee warned of an impending “criminalization of Christianity.”
As a result of these efforts, previously marginal theories made their way into the legal mainstream. Some of the Christian right’s most significant victories at the Supreme Court include the 2014 decision in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, holding that the requirement under the Affordable Care Act that employee health insurance plans must cover contraception violated the religious freedom of a family-owned corporation.
Another was the 2018 decision in Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission, which found that a state civil rights commission evinced “hostility to religion” by taking action against a baker who refused to prepare a cake for a gay wedding.
And so, for some right-wing evangelicals, government actions to flatten the curve of the coronavirus pandemic are just another example of secular bureaucrats violating the rights of devout Christians.
Jerry Falwell Jr., the president of Liberty University, reopened the campus after spring break over the objections of faculty after suggesting on Fox News that closures might be a political plot to undermine Trump. Similarly, after Rodney Howard-Browne’s arrest, he and his supporters claimed he was the victim — not the members of his church and community who could have been exposed to the virus.
“There is an attack on faith-filled believers right now,” Ring declared in an earlier sermon, an “attack meant to persecute our president for standing with the church.”
Man’s Law vs. God’s Law
As state and local orders restricting the size of public gatherings proliferated, a well-connected legal machinery revved into action.
In Virginia, a churchgoer sued Gov. Ralph Northam (D), seeking an injunction from a stay-at-home order he said violated his religious rights. (A state court judge denied the request.) In Texas, longtime Christian right activist and lawyer Jared Woodfill is representing three pastors in a similar lawsuit against a local official. In Pennsylvania, lawyers for Jonathan Shuttlesworth, a pastor and ally of Howard-Browne, have threatened the governor with a lawsuit, saying his stay-at-home order was “vague, overly broad, and has a chilling effect on First Amendment rights.” And in California, three churches have sued Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) and other officials, seeking to overturn stay-at-home directives.
As Trump nominates judges drawn from a pool of lawyers versed in right-wing Christian ideology, these arguments are also surfacing in federal jurisprudence. On the Saturday before Easter, Judge Justin Walker, a federal trial judge in Kentucky with close ties to both Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, issued a temporary restraining order against Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer, who had banned drive-through Easter services.
“On Holy Thursday,” Walker wrote in an aggrieved opinion laced with biblical references, “an American mayor criminalized the communal celebration of Easter.” (The Senate confirmed Walker for the seat six months ago despite a “not qualified” rating from the American Bar Association; Trump has since nominated him to a seat on the powerful Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.)
Howard-Browne, meanwhile, has retained the services of Orlando-based Liberty Counsel, which represented Kim Davis, the Kentucky clerk who refused to comply with a federal court order to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples. Liberty Counsel’s founder, Mat Staver, formerly served as the dean at the law school at Liberty University. In a class called “Foundations of Law,” he instructed aspiring attorneys that if they were faced with a conflict between “God’s law” and “man’s law,” they should resolve it in favor of “God’s law.” “For instance,” a former student said, “if you have a court order against you that is in violation of what you see as God’s law … civil disobedience was the answer.”
Republican governors have reacted to the pressure from the party’s powerful base. On April 2, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) issued orders overriding local restrictions on large gatherings to grant churches a special exemption. Howard-Browne’s lawyers declared victory as Hillsborough County was forced to alter its rules. At a meeting of the county’s emergency policy group, Tampa Mayor Jane Castor and Hillsborough County Commission Chair Lesley Miller Jr. expressed dismay that the order did not include any social distancing requirements.
“Please stay six feet apart,” Miller beseeched churches. “Because that’s the only thing we can see that will flatten that curve. But what I’m seeing here now, that curve in Hillsborough County and in this state is not going to be flattening anytime soon.”
And yet on April 3, Howard-Browne announced in an email to followers that he was suspending in-person services. “I am not doing this because I am backing down,” he wrote, “but we are going to protect our people from tyrannical government. We don’t feel that we can trust our law enforcement agency at this time and we do not want to jeopardize our pastors and expose our congregation to false arrests and the like.” In addition to livestreamed Sunday services, he explained, he would air daily live broadcasts via YouTube and Facebook.
Even online, Howard-Browne is undermining the measures that epidemiologists say are essential for returning to normal life. In his April 6 broadcast, he expressed concern that there might be “daily testing” for the virus.
“We’re not going to succumb to this nonsense, because behind that, they want to bring in the vaccines. The vaccine’s going to hurt more people than ever before,” Howard-Browne said. “The president has already talked about the medication that can help,” he added, a reference to hydroxychloroquine, an unproven coronavirus treatment Trump has promoted aggressively. (In the comments, a viewer wrote, “the blood of JESUS is the vaccine.”)
'The vaccine’s going to hurt more people than ever before,' Pastor Rodney Howard-Browne warned his congregants.
Howard-Browne’s reach extends far beyond his Tampa megachurch, via his itinerant ministry, books and television presence. Kelly Martinez, who attended a Howard-Browne multi-night revival in the late 2000s when she was a student at Oral Roberts University, described the intense social pressure surrounding the event.
“If you don’t go, you’re not as holy,” Martinez said. She added that it was almost unheard of to question the preacher “because he’s speaking for God.”
Howard-Browne also claimed in the same broadcast that during his career evangelizing around the world, he had been exposed to other viruses but “the Lord always took care of us.” The next day, he tweeted at Trump that he should call off the “Globalist Dogs,” by which he meant “The WHO The CDC Bill Gates UN Soros MSM.”
He went on: “It’s time to get America back to work. It’s time to end the Lockdown America First Stop the Tyranny Their narrative failed #Hydroxychloroquine.”
Playing Politics With A Pandemic
Constitutional experts say there is little legal ambiguity that the government has the ability to protect the public from a dire public health threat. The question, said Caroline Mala Corbin, a professor and First Amendment expert at the University of Miami School of Law, is whether these orders “could be viewed as singling out or persecuting congregations. And the answer is no.”
Across the country, state and local orders have banned all large gatherings, not just religious ones. What’s more, she added, “there’s no interest more compelling than saving people’s lives.” Last week, a federal judge in California denied a church’s emergency request to hold Easter services, ruling that the state has the authority to “limit the exercise of religion when faced with a public health crisis.”
Despite the clarity of the constitutional analysis, the Christian right sees the Trump administration as an unprecedented champion of its goals. Last week, Attorney General William Barr told Fox News’ Laura Ingraham that he was “very, very concerned” about the impact of stay-at-home orders on religious liberty.
Over Easter weekend, Justice Department spokesperson Kerri Kupec, a graduate of Liberty University law school, tweeted, “During this sacred week for many Americans, AG Barr is monitoring govt regulation of religious services. While social distancing policies are appropriate during this emergency, they must be applied evenhandedly & not single out religious orgs. Expect action from DOJ next week!” On Tuesday, DOJ lawyers backed the plaintiffs in a lawsuit brought by the Christian right legal powerhouse Alliance Defending Freedom, alleging that a ban on drive-in church services in Greenville, Mississippi, is unconstitutional.
The danger is that even if state and local directives succeed in flattening the curve, weakening these restrictions prematurely could result in new flare-ups. In Hillview, Kentucky, on Easter Sunday, state troopers placed quarantine notices on the windshields of cars parked at Maryville Baptist Church. About 50 people were illegally worshipping inside, according to the Louisville Courier-Journal.
A protester at the church held up a sign calling Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear a “tyrant.” Beshear insisted that he didn’t intend for anyone to be charged with a crime but simply wanted people to “do the right thing.” As the state’s health commissioner, Steven Stack, put it: “At what point do our rights to gather entitle us to have other people die as a result?”
Sarah Posner is a Reporting Fellow at Type Investigations. Her new book, ”Unholy: Why White Evangelicals Worship at the Altar of Donald Trump,” will be published in May.