This is a time of reflection on the nature of the role of religion in government and in society. Yesterday I listened in via Zoom to a panel discussion on this topic hosted by the Religious Freedom Center's Freedom Forum: "You Mean I Can't What? Religious Freedom in Difficult Times.

For religion and government in the United States, we have the United States Constitution to contend with. There is a nuanced and varied history on how religious freedom has been defined. This common law conversation changes with time and the ideological composition of the federal courts. One thing that is clear however, is that religious freedom in the United States is not absolute. There are higher standards, when if the state's interest is compelling, override the expression of belief through exercise and certainly call for neutrality on the part of the government itself. 

There is also the social aspect in which many find ancient faiths to be sources of stability during presumed existential crises. Many find that their crucial need for fellowship and human touch is fostered through convening together in religious ritual. A variety of religious institutions have gone "virtual" to accommodate these needs, yet others are not. 

Currently a compelling state interest incontrovertibly exists in keeping in-person social contacts down to a bare minimum. Most State Governors in the United States have issued stay-at-home orders that have included religious gatherings are impermissible association, a handful have not. In Texas, Governor Greg Abbott has considered religious congregation as an "essential service," but recommended that parishioners find their needs met over the internet. 

We also see the role of those who are in a capacity to speak for the government. There is a governmental commission that was launched a few years ago by Congress to evaluate the nature of religious freedom and discrimination around the globe. The heads of this organization are political appointees and the current chairman is Family Research Council President Tony Perkins.

Near the end of March, albeit at the beginning of many shelter-in-place orders, a Baton Rouge, Louisiana pastor (Tony Spell, Life Tabernacle Church) had a phone conversation with Commissioner Perkins to clarify if he was able to keep his doors open during covid-19. In an official capacity, and according to Spell, Perkins had said "We’re not asking you to close, we don’t want you to close, but how can we help you?" (20 March, 2020). Pell told the Washington Post that, “We feel we are being persecuted for the faith by being told to close our doors.” 

Five days prior, Pope Francis announced that there would not be in-person events for the foreseeable future. While Italy was in the middle of being ravaged by covid-19 infection, this was not an unknown threat by the 20th of March. President Donald Trump had declared a national emergency just one week before. By that time both Saudi and Turkey had halted public prayer. 

The Federal Government of the United States is also stepping in to offer bail out assistance to churches and faith based organizations through Small Business Administration (SBA) loans as part of a $350B provision in the United States $2T coronavirus stimulus package. The SBA is recognizing churches as "small businesses" saying, "Faith-based organizations are eligible to receive SBA loans regardless of whether they provide secular social services. No otherwise eligible organization will be disqualified from receiving a loan because of the religious nature, religious identity, or religious speech of the organization" (this prior to the US Supreme Court's Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue ruling).

Our institutions, our democratic norms, our commitment to each other, and ability to sacrifice and take care of each other should hold fast. People acting in an official public capacity in an unabashedly irresponsible manner and administrations acting in breach of the separation of religion and government in secular republics must not be tolerated. While the body politic is rocked with fever and fear, we have powerful tools at our disposal for future recompense. We have memory and documentation, we have a legal architecture to hold our leaders accountable, and should we have said democratic commitments, we ultimately have the power of franchise. 

As for Tony Spell, the minister decided to flout two executive orders issued by Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards before and after Spell's conversation with Commissioner Perkins (a 16 March, 2020 executive order prohibiting gatherings of 50 or more people and a 22 March stay-at-home order), Spell received six misdemeanor charges stemming from the second service in which he bussed in 1,825 parishioners to his 500 seat church in defiance of the ban. 

We will do our part to prevent the transmission of covid-19. From our mutual isolations and after, we will organize, we will educate, we will persuade, we will vote, and most importantly, we will bolster the separation of church and state because this point, it clearly is necessary to save lives.

Have a great week. Wash your hands, don't touch your face, wear a mask, and stay safe, 


Jason Frye, CEO
Secular Policy Institute                             
International Update:

Foreign Affairs asks "Can America Trust the Taliban to Prevent Another 9/11?"

A prayer meeting of 2,500 in Mulhouse may have been a significant contributor to a large novel coronavirus cluster in eastern France (Washington Post).

The further targeting of Muslims continues from the Modi administration. The New York Times exams the situation in Assam.

The Saudi government is inviting Houthi representatives for talks in Riyadh. Coverage comes from the Wall Street Journal.

A Megachurch in Alabama has stopped holding in-person worship services and used its parking lot and volunteers to help test for covid-19. 

A Florida sheriff charged a Tamp-area paster for defying a stay-at-home order and holding a 500-person worship service. 

A pastor was charged with six misdemeanor charges for bussing in 1,825 for a worship service. 

New York
New York Governor Andrew Cuomo sued over the state's ban on large-gatherings by an attorney who says that the ban hurts his ability to practice his faith. 

Texas Governor Greg Abbott declared that religious services were "essential" during the coronavirus outbreak, but encouraged virtual worship services.

The president of Liberty University, Jerry Falwell Jr. reconvened the private, Lynchburg-area religious college, 1,900 students returned. 

Update on SPI Fellows: Drs. Al-Tamimi, Juergensmeyer, McWhorter, Nasrin, and Semple

Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi
Dr. Al-Tamimi was quoted in the Kurdish media outlet Rudaw on security and the coronavirus.
Read more....

Mark Juergensmeyer
Dr. Juergensmeyer was quoted by Indica News on the March murder of 25 Sikhs in Afghanistan.
Read more....

John McWhorter
Dr. McWhorter discusses the development of certain English slang words in his most recent Lexicon Valley podcast.
Read more....

Taslima Nasrin
Dr. Nasrin was quoted in the Eurasian Times and the Indica News being critical of the Citizen Amendment Bill saying that it should equally apply to, rather than exclude, Atheists and Muslims. 
Read more....

Michael Semple
Dr. Semple was quoted in Gandhara over the level of commitment the Taliban has to the current peach process.
Read more....

Science News

Pablo Escobar's Hippos Fill a Pleistocene Hole
The late drug lord's collections of hippopotami have began to increase in population and fill in an ecological hole left by extinct megafauna.

Scientists Propose a New Technique with Black Hole Imaging
A study published in Science Advances discusses a theoretical method fo examine incoming light at a variety of angles through blackhole imagery.

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