State-Ordered Church Closures: Are They Constitutional?

May 20, 2020 UPDATE: Under Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s New York Forward plan, the Governor intends to lift COVID-19-related restrictions on business and other activities through a four-phase, region-by-region process. On May 19, 2020, New Yorkers for Constitutional Freedoms joined pastors across the State of New York in calling upon Gov. Cuomo to (a) lift restrictions on worship services in regions that have not been severely impacted by the pandemic; and (b) lift restrictions on worship services as part of Phase Two, not Phase Four, of New York Forward in other regions. On May 20, 2020, Gov. Cuomo announced that religious gatherings of up to 10 people would be allowed beginning on May 21, 2020; however, the Governor added that large religious services would not be allowed to resume until a given region of the state had reached Phase Four of the New York Forward plan. Gov. Cuomo has encouraged faith communities to consider holding parking lot services or drive-in services.

As New York’s Christians and churches continue to weather the coronavirus outbreak and the dramatic life changes that have accompanied it, New Yorkers for Constitutional Freedoms (NYCF) has fielded questions about the legality of government restrictions on church meetings.

First Liberty Institute (FLI) has released a helpful resource entitled “Guidance for Churches & Religious Institutions Facing Coronavirus Restrictions on Gathering.” According to FLI, temporary restrictions on peaceful religious gatherings may be permissible. Under the First Amendment, a government “may not substantially burden the free exercise of religion unless it has a compelling reason for doing so, and [must] use the least burdensome approach that achieves that compelling interest.” FLI goes on to explain that courts would almost certainly consider quelling a pandemic to be a “compelling reason” for taking temporary action to restrict religious gatherings, but adds that government should not place restrictions on churches or other houses of worship that it does not place upon other types of gatherings. However, if a government were to place a permanent limitation upon religious gatherings, such a limitation would violate the Constitution.

FLI recommends that religious institutions “continue to serve their local communities” during the epidemic, whether…through acts of mercy, providing shelter, or simply being a source of encouragement and peace in [a time] of crisis.”

New Yorkers for Constitutional Freedoms urges all New Yorkers and all churches to fully comply with Gov. Cuomo’s orders regarding the coronavirus epidemic. Churches are not closed, but government and health officials are encouraging people to shun gatherings of any size to prevent the spread of COVID-19. NYCF urges churches to err on the side of caution and to explore live streaming and other options as alternatives to in-person services. In these difficult circumstances, we should respect the governing authorities (Romans 13:1) and love our neighbors (Mark 12:31) by doing our part to thwart the spread of this pandemic.