Do Coronavirus Bans on Religious Services Violate Religious Freedom?

March 18, 2020

In a recent interview with Catholic News Agency, RFI President Thomas Farr provides a framework for thinking about the rights of faith communities to gather for religious services during this time when a growing number of countries and sub-national jurisdictions are restricting public gatherings due to the coronavirus outbreak.

 While speaking about Italy’s situation in particular, Farr states:

There must be a presumption in favor of full religious freedom for all religious communities in every country, especially in democratic countries. Italy’s decision in this case does not change that presumption, but it does show that in very limited circumstances, temporary limits on the freedom to gather may licitly be applied…No right with public effects is absolute, including the precious right of religious freedom.

Farr then identifies specific criteria that any government taking such extraordinary measures should abide by: “Such decrees may not be employed arbitrarily, for example, to target a particular religion or religion in general. They must be public, clear, and transparent. They should be preceded by consultation with the religious communities involved.”

Furthermore, government bans on public gatherings “must be grounded in overwhelming evidence, available to all, that public health would be severely endangered without such a decree. They must be time-limited, with a clear and public expression of when the ban will end.”

As Farr has argued elsewhere, “[Religious freedom] is a capacious right – i.e. universal, broad, and deep – though it is not absolute.” Both the vast scope and limits of religious freedom come to the fore in a world contending with the COVID-19 pandemic.

Read the full article: Do coronavirus closings violate religious liberty? A religious freedom expert weighs in.”