Most Americans of faith agree that houses of worship shouldn’t be allowed to evade state and local authorities’ stay-at-home orders during the coronavirus pandemic ― but there’s a notable anomaly within that trend, a new survey suggests.
About one-third of white evangelical Protestants ― a religious group with strong ties to President Donald Trump and the Republican Party ― support the idea of granting religious exemptions to stay-at-home-orders, according to a Public Religion Research Institute report published last Wednesday.
White evangelicals were more likely than other religious Americans to favor allowing churches and other religious organizations to hold in-person services, according to the survey.
About one-quarter of nonwhite Protestants said the same, along with 18% of both white Catholics and the religiously unaffiliated of all races, and 15% of white mainline Protestants.
More broadly, only about 21% of all Americans favor religious exemptions to stay-at-home orders for churches. Most Americans (77%) oppose allowing churches and religious organizations to hold in-person services, with 40% strongly opposing the exemptions.
PRRI conducted its survey just before Easter, a Sunday when churches are usually packed. Only 3% of Americans who typically attend religious services at least a few times a year reported that they planned to attend in-person services for Easter or other religious occasions, according to PRRI.
States have approached religious exemptions to stay-at-home orders in a variety of ways. Some states ― such as Florida, Michigan and New Mexico ― have added such exemptions to their stay-at-home orders, allowing houses of worship to hold religious services while encouraging (or requiring) worshippers to practice social distancing. Other states have explicitly banned religious groups from gathering in large numbers, prompting a showdown with some religious leaders, many of whom argue they can worship in person and practice social distancing at the same time.
Evangelical Christian pastors in California and Kentucky have gone to court to seek religious exemptions for stay-at-home orders, arguing that allowing people to go to grocery stores and laundromats while banning them from church is a violation of the First Amendment.
Attorney General William Barr has also intervened to support members of a small evangelical church in Greenville, Mississippi, who were fined for attending a drive-in service with their car windows rolled up. In a statement of interest issued last week, the Justice Department accused the city of Greenville of discriminating against these congregants, since the city allowed customers to eat at a nearby drive-in restaurant. The city later withdrew the fines.
In Kansas, a Trump-appointed federal judge sided with two Baptist churches challenging Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly’s 10-person limit on in-person attendance at religious services. The Saturday ruling found that the governor’s stay-at-home order likely violated the churchgoers’ First Amendment rights.
Kelly claims that at least four clusters of coronavirus cases in Kansas have been linked to “church settings.”
Her office says that six deaths and 80 cases of the novel coronavirus are tied to religious gatherings in Kansas.
“This is not about religion. This is about a public health crisis,” Kelly told The Associated Press.
PRRI's telephone survey of 1,007 adults took place between April 6 and 11 and has a margin of error of +/- 3.4 percentage points.