The Lessons the Coronavirus Crisis Can Teach Us About the Religious Liberty that Serves the Public Good (aka the Framers’ Religious Liberty)

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It has been a long time since the globe has been challenged by a common foe like the novel coronavirus, or COVID-19. In response, governments are taking action to save the largest number of their citizens. Whole cities, states, and countries are having to force sacrifice on their people for the greater good. There will be some who buck the demands of the common good, but there will also be remarkable acts of service and kindness. This is when people awaken to the reality that no one person can be our superhero. Rather, we must all do our small part to achieve a much larger objective. That means staying home when we are told, no longer shaking hands, washing our hands repeatedly, and whatever else scientists and public health experts ask us to do.

Here in the United States, we are having to dust off the concept of the common good, which has fallen away from public discourse in recent years. True, history contains magnificent examples: the slavery abolition movement’s construction of an “underground railroad”; the acts of brave men and women who fought for us in World War II; and the inspiring rhetoric and actions of leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr., who fought for civil rights for the horribly oppressed. Those acts were marked by self-sacrifice for the larger public good.

Factions of self-interest have proliferated since then. One of the most divisive forces of this era has been the demand for what is called “religious liberty” with no corresponding obligation to the larger public good. That is a false liberty, which the Framers would have called “licentiousness,” but we can simply call selfishness. The “ends” have justified the “means” for these believers, to the detriment of the larger public good.

Look at the following examples of “religious liberty” that have been foisted on the people of the United States in recent years. They share a common thread of believers demanding the right to use their “rights” to hurt others; or, to put it in today’s vernacular, they have been all too willing to sacrifice the larger good so long as they secured their own personal ends.

  1. Religious organizations have battled the victims of clergy sex abuse they created in court and the state legislatures. They have impressed on judges and lawmakers their “rights” to practice their religion, arguing they can’t be held accountable for their eyes-wide-open destruction of children as they handed them off to known perpetrators. Their argument is that they do so much good, it would be horrible to now make them pay for harm they did “in the past.” They say this despite the obvious suffering of the victims.
  2. The owner of Hobby Lobby, which is a store for arts and crafts supplies that advertises to the general public and takes anyone’s money regardless of faith valiantly fought for the right to exclude certain means of contraception from their employees’ health coverage. Under federal law, they are not permitted to discriminate based on faith in their hiring. They didn’t care that many of their employees don’t share their faith or that the policy disproportionately affected women or that their beliefs were inconsistent with medical science. Their sole obligation was to “their faith” not their employees or the larger public good.
  3. Some florists and bakeries have argued vehemently for a “right” to discriminate against LGBTQ couples who seek to purchase items for their weddings. No one invited them to attend the wedding, or frankly sought to ever see them again after the commercial transaction. “Their faith” justified excluding an entire category of American citizens whose right to marry is protected by the Constitution based on their gender and sexual orientation. These merchants’ attitudes are divisive and anti-American.

The lens of the greater public good turns each of these arguments for “religious liberty” on their heads. What would be the same reasoning in this COVID-19 era? I can hear it already: that there should be an exemption for believers from the bans on large gatherings. That would mean weddings, funerals, and worship services go forward despite the risk to those who work such events, as has already happened in New York. Or that religious schools stay open while public schools are closed. Or that when the coronavirus is ready, religious believers who oppose vaccination can avoid it.

In fact, COVID-19 is nondenominational, nonpartisan, and bipartisan. It will be happy to make anyone sick in a group that chooses to gather. It will kill the elderly and vulnerable without remorse.

This is what the Framers had in mind: Religious liberty that includes an obligation to the common good. State constitutions included exceptions to religious liberty for safety, health, and welfare. That common sense was baked into the First Amendment by James Madison. I pray that the coronavirus pandemic can at least have the silver lining of reminding us that we are each responsible for the greater good of all—regardless of your religious or nonreligious beliefs.