Pandemic tests exercise of religious freedom

Elizabeth White, Editor

On April 1 Saint Francis of Assisi church in Incline Village announced on its facebook page that three of its staff members had been infected by COVID-19.

Following this the church announced a decision to “close the church until further notice.”

These were the first known cases in Incline Village. It raises questions about whether or not churches should be allowed to hold in-person services during the pandemic, and if restrictions constitute a violation of religious freedom.

Sierra Nevada University senior and interdisciplinary studies, environmental science and sustainability student Hannah Smith agrees that religious freedom is important, growing up Lutheran herself, but that it doesn’t make sense to be holding services on ground during this pandemic.

“During this time you have to think of others,” she said. “It’s selfish to put other people at risk. If you go to church with a large congregation, that entire congregation could potentially be infected. Then those people go out into the community and infect everyone else. This could be detrimental in a small place like Incline Village.”

Easter Sunday provided a test. Governors in many states lifted restrictions on Easter Sunday, calling it an “essential service,” despite the Centers for Disease Control warning that large gatherings of people could be dangerous.

Tim M. Allen is pastor at New Life Church in Incline Village. The church made the decision on March 15 to close its doors to the public and switch to virtual services.

Allen believes other churches should look at the efforts currently being used to connect with their congregations, instead of holding large services on ground.

“Traditionally, societal isolation is more of a discipline to either grow – such as retreats for example, or to restrain – such as in a prison,” he said. “Presence is key to our lives, so to whatever extent churches should utilize any technology that helps bridge the distance that has been created through recent events, I think they should find ways for communicating presence.”

He believes gathering in fellowship is not entirely necessary to have “God’s presence active in their everyday lives.

“In the Old Testament, at differing times, when the Hebrew people were forced out of home and temple into captivity, the question seemed to linger, we are away from God’s presence because God’s presence is in the temple meeting place,” Allen said. “The Hebrew prophets remained confident to remind the wider group that God’s presence is not only in Jerusalem, but also where you are in captivity.”

Allen also adds that if churches are unable to provide virtual options, although there are many, he would encourage people to do at-home Bible studies and practice fellowship with family or roommates.

SNU professor of science and technology and Incline Village resident Suzanne Gollary said her church also decided to close in mid-March when the government began advising to people stay at home. Her church, St. Patrick’s Episcopal Church in Incline Village, decided to find creative alternatives to Easter and Palm Sunday by holding a drive through parade while also maintaining social distancing.

Gollary believes her church made the right decision by closing.

“People in services are singing, talking, shaking hands, hugging, and eating stuff cooked and set up by other people, all of which can spread this highly-infectious virus,” she said. “If everyone had stopped holding live religious services in December when China announced the epidemic, we’d have many fewer cases of Covid-19 in the rest of the world.”