Do coronavirus restrictions threaten religious freedom?

Paterno R. Esmaquel II

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Do coronavirus restrictions threaten religious freedom?
From Washington to Manila, religious freedom is set to become one of the most enduring debates of the coronavirus era

MANILA, Philippines – On May 22, US President Donald Trump made a controversial threat to his country’s governors. He warned that they should reopen churches, or else.

“The governors need to do the right thing and allow these very important, essential places of faith to open right now, for this weekend.  If they don’t do it, I will override the governors. In America, we need more prayer, not less,” Trump said. 

The context of Trump’s statement was, of course, political: He was courting his evangelical and conservative voters, as his base for the November polls was getting weaker.

Still, it is a sign of things to come, and not only for America. While the coronavirus pandemic is a health emergency, Trump’s faith agenda has got the world talking – not to mention that religion, by nature, strikes at the core of daily living. Religious freedom is set to become one of the most enduring debates of this time of a pandemic.

In the Philippines, President Rodrigo Duterte has not made statements as bombastic as Trump’s words about “essential places of faith.” With the government easing its coronavirus restrictions, however, a similar debate on religious freedom is looming in the Philippines.

How essential is religion in the time of pandemic? To what extent should the government allow public worship? Do coronavirus restrictions indeed threaten religious freedom in the country?

‘Persecution of faith’

Lingayen-Dagupan Archbishop Socrates Villegas, one of the most powerful voices in the Philippine Catholic Church, aired his concerns in a homily on June 7: “I am very afraid that there is an implied persecution of our faith because going to Mass, attending the Eucharist, worshiping the Lord, is lumped together in the same group as going to the barber shop and going to the theater to watch a movie.”

Villegas was referring to the government’s relaxed restrictions on religious worship. For places under general community quarantine or GCQ, participants in public worship are limited to 10. Critics call this unfair because there is no similar limit for reopened malls. They say it is also ridiculous because many churches can seat up to 2,000 people.

“The malls have opened, the markets are open, the offices are open, and they say the church? Under general quarantine, only 10 people. Is that fair? Is it just? Is it just to be prevented from worshiping the Lord in spirit and in truth?” said Villegas, former president of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines (CBCP).

Bishop Broderick Pabillo, temporary head of the Archdiocese of Manila, made a similar critique about a 5- to 10-person limit in churches. 

“Five persons for such a big church as Baclaran or the Manila Cathedral is laughable! The one-size-fits-all directive is really unreasonable! Why not give instead the instruction that there be one meter or two-meter distance between persons in a church?” Pabillo said in a Facebook post on May 17.

‘Unjust immoral restriction’

The debate boils down to two clashing values: the need to protect public health and the right to worship freely in churches.

While he is critical of Duterte’s anti-drug campaign and even the recent anti-terror bill, Villegas said the Catholic Church is mandated to follow the government during a pandemic.

“We give the government the benefit of the doubt that they make decisions based on scientific data and based on the experiences of other nations that have hurdled the health crisis. Public governance is not our realm and we recognize it. We are citizens of heaven but we must also be good citizens on earth,” Villegas said.

Recklessness leading to the spread of COVID-19, he added, is akin to murder.

The question for him is the basis for the government’s decisions: “What is the scientific data for 5 or 10 persons attending a religious gathering?”

Villegas said in an email to Rappler: “Religion is being treated unfairly and unequally. Our social distancing in church pews are ready. Our hygiene protocols are in place. Our worshiping faithful wear masks when they leave home. They do this as a Catholic moral obligation. They express their faith by obeying the quarantine protocols. This is an unjust immoral restriction on the freedom to worship.”

The archbishop then called for better coordination with experts, as he stressed that religion is essential in these trying times.

“Clearly, the pandemic of COVID-19 has raised our levels of fear of isolation and anxiety from being alone,” Villegas explained. “Our conscience urges us to make this stand that religion is essential for our people going through a very distressing time. This is when people need the Lord.” 

‘I refuse to call it the new normal’

Caloocan Bishop Pablo Virgilio David, another prominent Catholic leader in the Philippines, agreed it is best to follow the government and listen to experts about the reopening of churches. David is vice president of the CBCP.

“The common consensus is that for as long as there is no medication or vaccine available, public gatherings of any nature remain unsafe.  So, even with a heavy heart, we find it prudent to abide by the precautionary regulations in order to keep our communities, especially the elderly and vulnerable ones safe from this dreadful disease,” said David.

He warned, however, against labeling the situation as the “new normal.” 

“I refuse to call it a new normal,” the bishop said. Far from normal, he said, is the strict protocol required for safe mass gatherings – physical distancing, wearing of face masks, discouraging the use of holy water, and implementing a no-touch policy (no “mano po,” no kissing, and no shaking of hands).

“Inevitably, all these precautions go against the very grain of Church liturgical celebrations that involve a lot of singing, touching, spontaneity, proximity, et cetera. So why would we be that eager about reopening our religious gatherings to the public if we will have to celebrate them in such an abnormal way anyway? But then, of course, less is still far better than nothing at all,” the bishop said.

Even Pope Francis, said David, encourages the Catholic Church to heed expert advice if they want to help stop the pandemic. “Be careful. Don’t cry victory too soon,” the Pope said on June 7.

DISINFECTION. Workers disinfect a Catholic church in Quezon City on May 19, 2020, as they prepare for the resumption of public Masses once coronavirus measures are eased. Photo by Angie de Silva/Rappler

David said: “There is no doubt that our Masses and other liturgical celebrations are ‘essential’ for a healthy spiritual life. But given the dangers related to mass gatherings, we would rather follow expert advice instead of endangering the lives of people and overwhelming our healthcare system.”

According to the bishop, the challenge now for the Catholic Church is to explore ways by which they can use technology and social media to tend to their flock. 

Lay theologian Mike Asis, when asked by Rappler if he is ready to attend physical Masses once restrictions are lifted, answered no. “Not until a vaccine is available. I pray more fervently online now.”

“The Church should always defer to government policy. Besides, the Church is no expert in public health issues,” Asis explained. “Unless the Church has its own reliable public health officers who can give the clearance to hold public liturgical services, it could only rely on official public pronouncements.”

Test case in the US

The conversation is expected to further heat up after June 15, when Duterte announces new quarantine rules in the Philippines. 

The Philippines can learn a thing or two from the United States, where the religious freedom debate in the time of COVID-19 has already reached the Supreme Court. 

On May 29, the US Supreme Court voted 5-4 to deny the request of a California church to stop state restrictions on public worship. The New York Times said this was the US Supreme Court’s “first attempt to balance the public health crisis against the Constitution’s protection of religious freedom.”

In this case, the South Bay United Pentecostal Church challenged California state guidelines limiting the number of worshippers to 25% of a venue’s seating capacity or a maximum number of 100 participants. 

Chief Justice John Roberts Jr, in a concurring opinion, said California’s policies “appear consistent” with their country’s constitution.

Roberts pointed out that similar or even stricter restrictions apply to secular gatherings such as concerns, movie screenings, and lectures, where – as in churches – “large groups of people gather in close proximity for extended periods of time.” 

He said the California guidelines are more lenient only to “dissimilar activities” such as running grocery stores or banks, “in which people neither congregate in large groups nor remain in close proximity for extended periods.”

Roberts cited a 1905 case, Jacobson v Massachusetts, which states that the Constitution “principally entrusts ‘the safety and health of the people’ to the politically accountable officials of the States ‘to guard and protect.’” Another case, Marshall v United States, decided in 1974, states that when government officials “‘undertake to act in areas fraught with medical and scientific uncertainties,’ their latitude ‘must especially be broad.’”

While the Supreme Court rejected the church’s appeal, however, it should be noted that the vote was tight at 5-4, showing how contentious it is.

Justice Brett Kavanaugh, in his dissenting opinion, said California’s guidelines “discriminate against places of worship and in favor of comparable secular businesses.” It was only Kavanaugh, a controversial justice once accused of sexual misconduct, who penned a dissenting opinion in this case.

For Kavanaugh, the basic problem is that “comparable secular businesses,” such as offices, restaurants, and supermarkets, are not subject to the same 25% limit imposed on places of worship.

“The Church has agreed to abide by the State’s rules that apply to comparable secular businesses. That raises important questions: ‘Assuming all of the same precautions are taken, why can someone safely walk down a grocery store aisle but not a pew?’” asked Kavanaugh.

Situation on the ground

The coronavirus pandemic, however, requires state and society not only to debate ideas, but to address realities on the ground. The experience of Singapore and South Korea, where major coronavirus clusters formed through places of worship, show that church leaders should proceed with much caution.

DEFIANT FAITH. Catholics celebrate First Friday Mass outside Quiapo Church on June 5, 2020, as only 10 persons are allowed to join Masses inside churches under general community quarantine. Photo by Rob Reyes/Rappler

In Singapore, one of the earliest clusters of the coronavirus involved two Christian churches. The Singapore government, through detailed contact tracing efforts, tracked how the coronavirus spread from an asymptomatic couple attending a Christian church, to more than two dozen people in two other places.

According to the government, a coronavirus cluster formed at Life Church and Missions in Singapore after a couple, who arrived from Wuhan in China on January 19, attended a church service on the same day. They ended up infecting 6 other people.

A chain of infections stemmed from the couple, both 56 years old, who, according to BBC, were asymptomatic “silent spreaders” of COVID-19. 

Coronavirus clusters linked to Life Church and Missions include a Chinese New Year family gathering on January 25, and another church – Grace Assembly of God – where activities were held from January 29 to February 9.

The Grace Assembly of God cluster was one of the biggest in Singapore in the earliest days of COVID-19.

How many other “silent spreaders,” like the couple from Wuhan, can spread the disease in churches? And if a coronavirus cluster emerges in places of worship, how can the Philippine government track these cases with the help only of logbooks manually filled out – hopefully not tampered with – by churchgoers?

As it slowly reopens businesses and also church services, the Philippines should also learn from countries like India, which imposed a haphazard lockdown only to relax it in a likewise haphazard way because its economy was already suffering. (Learn more from this podcast by the The Economist.)

Places of worship in India, for one, have already reopened as the country’s lockdown is eased. At the same time, however, new cases of COVID-19 in India have continued to surge, making it the country with the 3rd highest number of new infections next to the United States and Brazil. 

The Philippines now finds itself in the same boat: The Duterte government eased its coronavirus lockdowns – downgrading Metro Manila to GCQ, for example – despite the warning of University of the Philippines (UP) experts that this decision was premature. Indeed, while the government has relaxed its rules, UP experts estimate that coronavirus cases in the Philippines can rise to as many as 40,000 by end-June.

Is it right to resume church services in a context where the government cannot always be trusted?

The Philippines, and the rest of the world, will face such nagging questions in the months to come.

The 5 Catholic bishops of Washington state, in a statement on May 22, offered the wisest answers not only to Trump, but to the global debate about worship in the time of COVID-19.

“We want to let you know that the public celebration of Mass was suspended, not out of fear, but out of our deepest respect for human life and health,” the bishops of Washington said. “While we share the desire to bring people back to Mass as quickly as possible, we will wait to schedule our public worship when it is safe and we are prepared to do so.” 

What’s at stake, aside from defending religious freedom, is protecting the most vulnerable. It is a tough balancing act, a defining test of religion in the age of the coronavirus. –

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Paterno R. Esmaquel II

Paterno R. Esmaquel II, news editor of Rappler, specializes in covering religion and foreign affairs. He finished MA Journalism in Ateneo and MSc Asian Studies (Religions in Plural Societies) at RSIS, Singapore. For story ideas or feedback, email