Faith Time: When do restrictions on worship become government overreach?

Faith Time

MOBILE, Ala. (WKRG) — Pastor Blake Newsom with Dauphin Way Baptist Church in Mobile joined us over Zoom to talk about this topic. Here’s a look at our conversation:

Anchor: We wanted to talk about worship restrictions imposed by the government versus religious liberty. How comfortable are you with the restrictions placed on most houses of worship because of the pandemic?

Response: Let me start by saying that our government leaders are in incredibly difficult circumstances and are acting in what they believe is the best interest of public safety. I appreciate the response of our state and local leaders, who have categorized religious entities as essential and have extended exceptions to churches. However, as a general rule, we should all be genuinely uncomfortable with the intrusion of government into matters of religion.

Anchor: At what point would you consider these restrictions to be an overreach–something that hinders worship more than it protects the public?

Response: For me, the question of overreach depends on several factors, such as the motivation and intention of the restrictions combined with the nature, intensity, and duration of the restrictions. When the government limits opportunities to or singles out religious entities, they are overreaching. Churches must be afforded the freedom to exercise religion according to their consciences, and be given latitude to figure out how to do that in the midst of a crisis.

Anchor: For the most part we’ve seen pastors and other religious leaders comply with these restrictions on gathering. We have seen outliers in some states who still hold out of the car, sitting in pews in-person services–how do you feel about those sorts of actions?

Response: I disagree with some of them. I never agree with everything that all pastors and churches do, but I believe they have the right to do it. This strikes the nerve of the issue. The first amendment guarantees these rights for a purpose. The government and others will inevitably and sometimes rightly and appropriately disagree with what a religious institution does, but freedom of religious expression means those rights are not dependent on governmental approval or popular consensus.

Anchor: Whenever a repressive nation-state tries to restrict worship it’s always done under the guise of something else like safety or security. How concerned are you that states won’t give up on these public health restrictions and they hinder worship in perpetuity?

Response: That question strikes at the heart of the issue. What has set the United States apart is the understanding on the part of our founding fathers that there are certain rights that are not granted by the government. They are granted by a higher power, and the role of the government is not to grant those rights but to recognize and protect those rights. History is filled with examples of governmental intrusion into matters of religion for reasons they deemed to be the best interest of society. We have seen in this horrible crisis some sectors of the government relegate the church to the category of non-essential, which is an absolute violation of the Bill of Rights. Now, the fact that in the state of Alabama, which is a very conservative and religious state, we had to talk to and petition our government authorities to declare churches essential should cause all of us concern. It sets a dangerous precedent for the future regarding religious liberty.

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