Church Closures, Religious Freedom, and the Coronavirus Pandemic: Assessing the Christian Legal Movement’s Response

Andrew Lewis is Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Cincinnati





Daniel Bennett is Associate Professor of Political Science at John Brown University and Assistant Director at the Center for Faith and Flourishing






During the earliest days of the coronavirus pandemic in the United States, many state and local governments enacted restrictions on large gatherings in an effort to slow the spread of the virus. Restaurants were closed, concerts and sporting events canceled, store capacities limited, and Sunday worship services halted. It was a sudden and seismic shift in the American way of life.

Religious Americans generally complied with orders pertaining to worship services, but many also expressed concerns about such regulation of religious life. Across several national surveys, white evangelicals were more likely than others to support churches defying government restrictions. Moreover, there were clear partisan gaps coinciding with support or opposition to these restrictions. Additionally, one study linked defiant attitudes to whether states had either no restrictions or strong restrictions, and another study connected defiance to trust in Fox News. In general, the politics of COVID restrictions on churches reflect the growing polarization of religious freedom, one that is poised to play a major role in future—and, in many ways, current—culture wars.


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“Churches” in a Time of Coronavirus

Zachary B. Pohlman is a third-year law student at the University of Notre Dame Law School

Regular in-person gatherings at churches, synagogues, mosques, and other places of worship came to a grinding halt in mid-March. Six months later, religious attendees are returning to the pews—but in significantly fewer numbers.  Whether churchgoers ultimately return to their pre-pandemic levels of in-person worship remains to be seen.  Regardless of whether they do, the coronavirus-induced, steep decline in church attendance—even if only for the short term—could have lasting effects for how we conceive of “churches” from both external and internal perspectives. That is, how we understand churches as both a legal and religious matter could be shaped by the unique challenges presented by the pandemic. (For purposes of this blog post, “churches” refers to houses of worship of all types, including churches, synagogues, mosques, and temples.)


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Political Theology and Church Restrictions

Paul Marshal is Wilson Professor of Religious Freedom and Research Professor in Political Science at Baylor University, Senior Fellow at the Hudson Institute, and the Leimena Institute, Jakarta

Perhaps the most contentious religious freedom issue raised in the pandemic has been governmental limits on religious gatherings, and not only in the U.S.

We should not exaggerate the resistance by churches and others. The vast majority of churches, mosques, synagogues, and temples have followed government orders. Many of those that have resisted restrictions are often fringe bodies, commonly with ties to the “prosperity gospel.”

Also, churches have been scapegoated. The New York Times ran an op-ed titled “The Road to Coronavirus Hell Was Paved by Evangelicals,” though later changed to the milder but still tendentious “The Religious Right’s Hostility to Science Is Crippling Our Coronavirus Response.” Later it published “Churches Emerge as Major Source of Coronavirus Cases.” However, the article traced only 650 cases to churches, which was, on July 8, 2020, the day the piece was published, only 0.022% of the 2,923,432 reported cases in the U.S., hardly a “major” source.


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