Do Government Restrictions on Larger Church Gatherings Violate Religious Freedom?

March 27, 2020

In an article published recently in Providence Magazine, RFI Senior Fellow Paul Marshall discusses different ways of understanding how state bans on public gatherings impact religious freedom:

Some have argued that such restrictions are a violation of religious freedom, while others have argued that they are responsible and legitimate government action. I believe that both positions are, or can be, correct.

Marshall points to a normative understanding of religious freedom that recognizes this freedom as “necessarily restricted by other freedoms, and also by the duties that we all must follow.” In this view, limits are inherent to the definition itself. To say that religious freedom has limits is not to say that it is narrow in scope. To the contrary, it is a broad freedom, but not an absolute one.

An alternative approach is to remove any potential restrictions from within the definition of religious freedom and then to acknowledge that religious freedom “may legitimately be restricted in certain circumstances.” Religious freedom is broad and has no internal limiting principle, so this argument goes, but at times it may need to be restricted by a proper exercise of state authority.

Pulling the two views together, Marshall writes:

In the first position, we would say that if government actions are proper then they are not a real restriction of religious freedom. In the second position, we would say they are restrictions on religious freedom but that they are justifiable.

“There are risks in each of these positions,” Marshall continues, “but they often lead to the same practical conclusion. Many of the differences may be largely semantic…several of our disputes about religious freedom stem simply from using the term in these different ways.”

Marshall concludes by explaining that religious and political authorities are shaped “according to their respective missions.” Given the public health crisis due to COVID-19, Marshall views most of the government restrictions on religious gatherings enacted recently by western democracies as, in principle, necessary. They do not, he argues, improperly encroach upon the religious sphere because they are limited in time, do not discriminate against particular religious communities, and do not seek to “usurp church teachings or mission.” People on both sides of the divide over how to understand the proper limits of religious freedom can affirm this conclusion.    

Read the full article: Do Government Restrictions on Larger Church Gatherings Violate Religious Freedom?