The Honorable Tom Wolf
Office of the Governor
508 Main Capitol Building
Harrisburg, PA 17120
Re: Protective measures for gatherings
Dear Governor Wolf:
The 2700+ stakeholders of the Pittsburgh Freethought Community respectfully ask that you modify Pennsylvania’s critical stay-at-home order to include churches and other religious gatherings.
We are very concerned that your current stay-at-home order does not apply to religious institutions. This policy will needlessly endanger Pennsylvanians. In fact, it has been reported that one-third of all COVID-19 cases in one large California county can be traced to church services. It has also been reported that one infected person attending church services in South Korea accounted for at least 60 percent of all COCID cases in that country.
As reported by the Freedom from Religion Foundation, “religious freedom does not require exempting churches from these orders. Second, such exemptions themselves unconstitutionally favor churches. Third, these exemptions are immoral and deadly. There is no legal reason to exempt churches from these orders. Americans have rights to worship and to assemble, but neither of those rights is unlimited and neither includes the right to risk other peoples’ lives. Our First Amendment rights are limited. Freedom of speech does not include defamation or true threats. Political speech—a quintessential example of constitutionally protected speech—is even limited near polling places. Free assembly, and the free exercise of religion, are similarly limited.”
We might add that there are many laws that religious organizations must comply with, one example being building and fire codes for church structures The congregants’ right to gather and worship is limited by the government’s need to protect those congregants from being trampled to death and the community from a fire. Preventing large gatherings due to a pandemic is even more crucial.
There is no doubt that states have the authority to take necessary measures to protect public health. It is hard to imagine a clearer need for prohibiting church services and gatherings than a highly infectious global pandemic. More importantly, the Supreme Court and many lower federal courts have repeatedly held that burdening the First Amendment rights to worship and assemble is perfectly permissible to prevent the spread of diseases. It was more than 100 years ago, in a 7-2 opinion, the Supreme Court explained that society and other citizens’ interest in stopping the spread of smallpox was greater than one individual’s religious rights. Jacobson v. Commonwealth of Mass., 197 U.S. 11
Kelly Shackelford (who runs First Liberty Institute) wrote an op-ed for the Washington Post, co-authored with R. Albert Mohler, a theologian and president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Their headline says it all: “Mandatory social distancing is not a threat to religious liberty. It’s essential for humanity.” They write, “asking houses of worship to briefly suspend large gatherings is neither hostile toward religion nor unreasonable in light of the threat. Rather, this is a time for all of us to exercise prudence over defiance.”
As Annie Laurie Gaylor, co-President of FFRF, has said “Prohibiting large gatherings is not a ban on worship any more than speed limits are a ban on driving. And this order is only temporary. The short-term ban is guided by science: The more people who gather, the more viruses spread. Viruses do not respect boundaries or holy ground, they simply travel from person to person.”
Governor Wolf, please modify Pennsylvania’s critical stay-at-home order to include churches and other religious gatherings. The very lives of your family, and ours, and all others in the Commonwealth may indeed be at greater risk without this action.
Pittsburgh Freethought Community
Dana L. Morganroth
President/ Board Chair
The Pittsburgh Freethought Community is a growing a 501(c)(3) community benefit organization with over 2700 stakeholders in western Pennsylvania (https://pghfreethought.org/). We represent a large cross-section of young and old adults who support our three-fold mission:
• To be a welcoming and caring community for all those who share a humanist worldview and an evidence-based perspective;
• To provide a strong and respected public voice for the secular humanist community in shaping public debate and formulating public policy;
• To promote science, reason, critical thinking, and humanist values in the greater Pittsburgh area.
PFC brings together local freethinkers, including members of many national freethought groups including the Freedom from Religion Foundation, American Humanist Association, Center for Inquiry, American Atheists, Secular Coalition for America, and Sunday Assembly.