No matter the circumstances of the world, the freedom to practice religion must remain protected 

Last Sunday, Rev. Rodney Howard-Browne, held two church services filled with hundreds of attendees, against the advice of Florida officials. His decision to hold the service led the local sheriff to obtain a warrant for his arrest. On Monday afternoon, Rev. Howard-Browne turned himself in, posted bail, and now faces second-degree misdemeanor charges. 

With the numbers of those falling ill to the coronavirus increasing exponentially every day, measures are being taken across the nation to implement what people have deemed “social distancing.” Of course, this is not really new information to anyone, as we have been doing it for a couple weeks now. 

The problem with this term, “social distancing,” is that it does not say exactly what it means to. What groups such as the CDC are trying to suggest is that we should attempt to keep a physical distance, preferably at least six feet, between ourselves and other individuals at all times. The phrase “social distancing” seems to imply that we need to be socially distant from others. Right now, this could not be further from the truth. 

This is one explanation as to why Rev. Howard Browne decided to hold his church service on Sunday. Though measures against social distancing are in place in Florida, the pastor felt convicted enough to bring his community together in these challenging times. Now, more than ever, he felt that it was necessary to break orders to fulfill his duty to God. Conviction from God can sometimes seem stronger than what is “legally correct.”

This does not make either the actions of the pastor nor the actions of the state correct. 

While people have been quick to defend either the pastor for fulfilling his duty, or the state for enforcing the law, two things can be true at once. Churches need to stop holding services and the state needs to realize it has no right to impose on religious institutions. 

The first part of this sentiment is hard to understand at a time like this. Everyone wants to gather, worship in the face of adversity and pray as a community. This is completely understandable. 

By this same token, God gave us ears to listen to authority and brains to make the safest decisions possible. The current rates read 927,986 cases worldwide, and 46,491 lives taken from this virus. We should not do anything to assist this virus in its spread. 

This means that, unlike Pastor Jonathan Shuttlesworth has suggested, we should not hold Easter events, we should stop physically attending church and until further notice, we can worship at home. 

We must not forget that the Bible reads in Matthew 18:20 that “For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.” FaceTime a friend and have a worship session. Do a devotional with your family. Watch one of the hundreds of livestream services on Sundays. There are ways to fulfill our faithful duties without physically being at church. 

That said, the government does not have the right to start to shut down churches and places of worship. This could very easily become one of the largest oversteps of government power that we have seen in recent history. 

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo recently said, “If you go to your synagogue, if you go to your church and attempt to hold services after having been told so often not to, our enforcement agents will have no choice but to shut down those services.” This is understandable, as he has a job to do in protecting his constituents.

However, Cuomo continued by promising to, “take additional action up to the point of fines and potentially closing the building permanently.”

The government does not, I repeat does not, have the right to permanently shut the doors of any religious institution. Under no circumstances does the First Amendment allow for the imposing of restrictions on practicing religion. In fact it expressly prohibits the free exercise of it. 

Ultimately, the arrest of this reverend was untimely and inappropriate. While New York is releasing inmates in light of this epidemic to limit prisoners’ exposure, they should not be simultaneously jailing a pastor for following what he believed to be orders from God.  

We need to work together right now, not find more ways to harm or take away the rights of others. COVID-19 is not something to be taken lightly, and we all need to learn how to adapt. Pastors should hold live streams. Worship and prayer should continue. Everyone should attempt to obey our “safer-at-home” guidelines. 

But most importantly, the government must stop trying to impose on the first amendment, or who knows what they will try to take away next. If we don’t fight for our right to continue to practice now, we don’t know what we stand to lose later. 

So yes, don’t go to a physical church, but become a prayer warrior. Worship harder than ever. Never stop practicing your faith.