Lawsuits have been filed by some religious groups because of certain restrictions imposed in response to COVID-19. One obvious concern about these lawsuits is that churches have been among the super spreaders of COVID-19. The spreading, obviously, has nothing to do with religion but with people holding in person gatherings without masks and then going out into the general community. An interesting consideration is that while politicians have made a religious freedom issue out of the COVID restrictions, most Americans (including religious Americans) do not see these restrictions as a threat to religious freedom. As such, one might be inclined to speculate about the motives behind these lawsuits.
Those who like political conspiracy might suspect that these lawsuits are aimed at helping Trump’s re-election chances by feeding his COVID narrative. Those who like a darker sort of conspiracy might turn to a horror-story style narrative: perhaps a secret sect that believes they have a role in the apocalypse by serving to rouse Pestilence (the horseman of the apocalypse). These conspiracy theories should, perhaps, be seen as crazy as the Plandemic conspiracy theory and dismissed out of hand. The most charitable speculation about motivation would, of course, be that the lawsuits are being brought because of a sincere and honest concern about violations of religious freedom by certain states.
While motivations do matter morally and impact credibility, they have no bearing on the truth of a claim. As such, even if those claiming COVID restrictions violate religious liberty have nefarious motives, this has no relevance to the truth of their claim. To think otherwise would be to fall into an ad hominem fallacy (a fallacy in which some alleged defect in the person making the claim disproves the claim). So, the issue is whether COVID-19 restrictions violate religious freedom. I will focus on the moral issue and leave the legal issue to the courts.
As a starting point, I will make the obvious point that religious freedom is not absolute and can be justly restricted in at least some cases. As a general argument, no freedom can be absolutely unrestricted—this is because unrestricted freedom would restrict (or destroy) itself. To use a silly example, if religious freedom was absolute, then the religious freedom of a religion that wanted to restrict all other religions on religious grounds must be respected. This seems to be a reductio on the idea of absolute freedom (and one I stole from Hobbes). As such, religious freedom requires some restrictions on religious freedom. If so, then what we need to settle is the limit (or the extent) of religious freedom and see where the COVID restrictions fall.
Intuitively, we all probably agree that religious freedom should not allow people the liberty to engage in such things as murder, theft, rape, and genocide. So, if the Church of Murder, Rape and Robbery insisted they had the moral right to rob, rape and murder you on the grounds of religious liberty you would, I assume, disagree. And rightfully so. Sticking within a rights theory of ethics, your right to life and property would override their right to religious liberty. This rests on the notion that there is a hierarchy of rights, with some rights having more moral weight than others (among other factors). One could also use a utilitarian approach of the sort developed by Mill: if restricting a religious liberty would create more positive value than negative value, then doing so would be morally right. While the members of the Church of Murder, Rape and Robbery would be unhappy about not being able to practice their faith on other people, the harm this would inflict outweighs their unhappiness.
I am not claiming that wanting a religious freedom exemption from COVID restrictions is analogous to wanting the freedom to murder, rape and rob. My point is to establish that limiting religious freedom to protect other rights and to prevent harm can be morally acceptable. But this does not settle the specific issue of whether COVID restrictions violate religious freedom. Obviously, this will depend on the specific restrictions and the context.
One relevant factor is the intent of restrictions. If COVID restrictions were created and applied primarily with the intention to infringe on religious liberty, then that would be wrong. But even if the restrictions were created and applied with only benign intent, they could still wrongly violate religious liberty. To use an analogy, one might impose restrictions on high calorie drinks from a benign intent (to reduce obesity) and yet still be wrongly limiting freedom. But there is no evidence that the restrictions were created to harm religious liberty.
Another relevant factor is consistency in restrictions. To illustrate, if religious gatherings are restricted because of the risk of people gathering, then that standard must be applied consistently, or they would be unfair. For example, if bars, restaurants, and movie theaters could operate and they did so in a manner similar to how churches would operate(size of gatherings, etc.), then there would a moral case that churches are receiving unfair treatment. The conclusion of such moral reasoning might, however, be that the bars, restaurants, and movie theaters should also be restricted rather than that the churches should not be so restricted.
One can also make the essential service argument for churches. Grocery stores, car rental business and many government offices remain open because they are considered essential. The justification here is on utilitarian grounds: there would be more harm in closing them then keeping them open. To use the most obvious illustration, closing grocery stores and food delivery would result in starvation, so keeping these operating is morally acceptable. One cannot Zoom a meal. But are large, in person, (possibly mask free) gatherings at churches essential?
Religious is obviously important, even essential, to some people. That is not in dispute. What is in dispute is whether large, in person gathering (possibly without masks) is essential. That is, can people practice their religion without being able to gather closely in large numbers (perhaps without masks). To use an analogy, running is essential to me, but large road races are restricted. Can I practice my running without these large gatherings?
On the face of it, the answer would seem to be that we can. Religious people can gather online, they can gather outside and space themselves, they can gather inside in small groups wearing masks, and so on. In the case of running, I can still run by myself, I can run with others by maintaining distance, and I can do virtual races. These do involve costs and inconveniences, but they all allow people to continue to practice the group aspects of religion (and running). The fact that most religious people have been doing these things provides considerable evidence that religion (and running) can be practiced while the medical restrictions are in effect. This can, of course, be disputed on theological grounds—something I will leave to the theologians to settle. But on the face of it these restrictions do not interfere with religious liberty in a way that is unfair, inconsistent, or unwarranted relative to other freedoms, like the freedom of running.
If the restrictions are applied consistently based on relevant factors such as gathering size, risk, being essential, and proximity, then the issue would become whether there should be a special religious freedom exemption from these restrictions. That is, the right of religious freedom would allow a special exemption because religious people want to gather indoors, in large groups and perhaps without masks. That is, there should be religious exemption in the case of public health—after all, they are not just putting themselves at risk, they are putting everyone they will contact at risk as well.
Imagine, if you will, that a person infected with Ebola insists on their religious freedom and demands that they be allowed to go to church without restriction. This would clearly be selfish and wrong of them: such a deadly disease could kill the others and then spread out into the community. While COVID-19 is nowhere near as lethal as Ebola, it is meaningfully dangerous—so the argument would be that the risk to themselves and others is acceptable because they wish to exercise their freedom of religion and gather. We do, as some will point out, think that churches have the right to stay open in flu season. But, as just noted, we would probably all agree that people infected with Ebola should not be allowed to freely go to church because they have religious freedom.
To use an analogy, we all probably agree that military grade flamethrowers should not be allowed for in-church use even if a church considers fire an important part of their services. This is because flame throwers would present a danger to the people in the church and could create a fire that would spread to nearby structures or a forest. But imagine a church that wants something less than flamethrowers: they just want their church to be exempt from the fire safety laws and regulations that other people must follow. They argue that their religion values fire, so being forced to have things like smoke alarms, working fire extinguishers and fire exits would violate their religious freedom to practice their faith. They also want to be able to use plenty of fire in their services and want to have a stock of flammable material on hand—stored in loose piles around the church, as their faith demands. They would argue that there is some risk—but it is relatively low compared to flame throwers. But, of course, they could easily set their church on fire and have it spread to all the nearby structures and burn them down (and hurt the people in them). While they could be argued to have a right to burn themselves and their church, their religious freedom would not seem to give them a right to put the nearby buildings (including other churches) and the people in them at such needless risk. They can, of course, have the fire needed for their faith, but it must be kept in a way that does not needlessly risk hurting other people. The same would seem to apply to COVID-19 and churches: they have the right to practice their faith, but they do not have the right to put others at risk while doing so.
Not surprisingly, some making the religious freedom exemption argument also support Trump’s view that COVID-19 is not dangerous. They sometimes cite their own experts when making this claim, although it runs counter to the overwhelming consensus of the medical and scientific communities. While their claims about the danger of COVID-19 are manifestly not true, their general approach is not in error: it does make sense to consider the danger presented by a threat when deciding which liberties to restrict and how to restrict them. This is something that is rarely done rationally and consistently; but it is essential to making a case for or against restricting liberty. The best medical data shows that large gatherings (without masks) are dangerous, so restricting churches is as morally acceptable as restricting marathons and no more wrongly infringes on religious freedom than it does on running freedom.