DeSantis’ Religious Exemption Will Kill—And it Violates the 1st Amendment

If Governor DeSantis doesn’t rescind the worship exemption in his ‘Safer at Home’ order, Floridians will die. His pair of executive orders forces all localities, regardless of how overwhelmed their medical facilities are or how many people are infected, to allow large gatherings in churches. This worship exemption is triply problematic.

First, there’s no legal reason to exempt churches from orders that temporarily halt large gatherings. Americans have rights to worship and to assemble, but neither of those rights is unlimited and neither includes the right to risk other peoples’ lives. Like all states, Florida already regularly limits worship gatherings that jeopardize public health. For instance, the government prohibits churches from cramming too many people into a building in violation of fire codes. The congregants’ right to gather and worship is limited by the government’s need to protect those congregants from being trampled to death and the community from a fire. 

Preventing large gatherings at this moment is even more crucial. It’s hard to imagine a clearer need for prohibiting church services and gatherings than a highly infectious global pandemic. 

More importantly, the Supreme Court and many lower federal courts have repeatedly held that burdening the First Amendment rights to worship and assemble is perfectly permissible to prevent the spread of diseases. More than 100 years ago, in a 7-2 opinion, the Supreme Court explained that society and other citizens’ interest in stopping the spread of smallpox was greater than one individual’s religious rights. The Supreme Court has since reiterated this again and again

Prohibiting large gatherings is not a ban on worship any more than speed limits are a ban on driving. And this is only temporary. Churches all over the country are worshipping alone, in small groups or even in large groups online. The short-term ban is simply on the unsafe activity, regardless of purpose. These policies are guided by clear science: The more people that gather, the more viruses spread. Viruses do not respect boundaries or holy ground, they simply travel from person to person. 

Second, these exemptions unconstitutionally favor churches. The Supreme Court has also held that the First Amendment “requires the state to be neutral in its relations with groups of religious believers and non-believers” and that the “government may not favor religious belief over disbelief.” By unnecessarily favoring churches Desantis’s exemption actually violates the First Amendment. 

Finally, and most importantly, DeSantis’s order is immoral—because it will kill people. According to health officials, one-third of all COVID cases in one large California county can be traced to church services. The numbers are even bigger elsewhere. Reuters documents the harrowing story of one infected person in South Korea attending two church services and spreading COVID to another 1,200 people and that that “Church cluster accounts for at least 60% of all cases in South Korea.”

Clerics seeking exemption from social distancing orders are not simply asking for a right to gather and worship, they are also asking for a right to risk the health and lives of every other member of the community and country. They are risking the lives of responsible Floridians, immuno-compromised Floridians, and other people who are, for instance, only risking exposure to get necessary groceries or medicine. These churches are also overburdening the health care system. Doctors are already working overtime and are already rationing beds and ventilators. Churches that hold services are contemptuously disregarding the efforts of these heroes. 

If being unconstitutional, immoral, and deadly weren’t bad enough, DeSantis issued the order, apparently, to support Rodney Howard-Browne, the preacher who violated local rules prohibiting large gatherings. This pious scoundrel isn’t just spreading the coronavirus during these services, he’s also spreading false information. Howard-Browne claimed that his church is safe for worship because it has 13 machines that would “basically kill every virus in the place.” That is not true. Howard-Browne preached that people who have enough faith will see their rolls of toilet paper “multiply.” That is also untrue. DeSantis is endangering the lives of more than 21 million Floridians for this specimen.

These exemptions will kill people. Data backs this up. Science tells us so. If DeSantis doesn’t amend his orders, he’s as responsible for the deaths as the egomaniacal cleric who insists on holding packed services despite the catastrophic risk to the community.