As most state governors have made explicit exemptions for religious gatherings amidst their emergency declarations, Governor Steve Bullock has not recognized the First Amendment rights to religion and peaceful assembly. He has, however, provided explicit exemptions for pot dispensaries, abortion clinics, and liquor stores.
Although some churches have no problems closing their doors in lieu of actual public worship gatherings, some faith traditions hold that corporate worship gatherings are an essential component of their faith. Those with a traditional orthodoxy believe in weekly communion, publicly observed and administered by ordained clergy. Others insist that Bible passages like Ephesians 5:19 require physically gathering to exhort one another in song. Regardless of their individual religious conscience, it’s clear that the nature of religious liberty being inalienable, rights don’t disappear because of a pandemic.
Montana pastors are collecting signatures as we speak for a letter drafted by clergy and addressed to Governor Steve Bullock, asking him to explicitly affirm the religious freedom to corporate worship by April 24.
The letter, available here, the letter states, “On the basis of the following three arguments we are proposing a solution that we hope will be agreeable to you as a way of balancing your obligation to both uphold the Constitution of the United States and care for the welfare of the citizens of Montana. We recognize that the physical health of the citizens of this state requires your attention. We are bold to remind you that the freedoms, granted by God, and guaranteed by the Constitution also demand your utmost energies.”
The clergy then address three issues, the first of which was that rights aren’t abrogated in an emergency.
The letter says, “…when the government tells the Church that it cannot meet, it has not only contradicted a clear Word of God to His Church, (that is, that we are to meet to receive His gifts), it has also abrogated the constitutional rights of free exercise of religion and the right to assemble, (enumerated in both the U.S. and Montana constitutions). It is not safe to ignore the constitution. If a health crisis can precipitate the overthrow of the Constitution then this nation has no constitution at all.”
The second issue addressed was the impossibility of worship to be duplicated over the Internet. They wrote, “At a time of crisis, more than ever, the citizens of this state need access to their communities of faith. The presence of the Body of Christ, as the Church, cannot be duplicated digitally. When presented with these conditions, not only the threat of the virus, but also the ensuing economic disaster, people need to hear that God is in control, that He cares, and will take care of them.”
And third, “It is not difficult to envision a future crisis that would provide an opportunity to use the current one as precedent. The argument might then be, ‘It is not essential for the Church to meet together. After all, the Church survived the Covid 19 crisis through the use of electronic meetings.’ After that, the government could claim authority to determine further limitations.”
The letter was humbly written and informed the governor that he was in our prayers, before asking him to clarify the existence of First Amendment rights in Montana.
The letter was written by Pastor Terry Forke with the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod. Pastors are encouraged to sign the letter and send their name and title, church name, city, and congregation size to firstname.lastname@example.org.