March 25th, 2020
The Honorable Mike Dewine
Governor of the State of Ohio
Riffe Center, 30th Floor
77 South High Street, Columbus,
Dear Governor Dewine:
We, the undersigned,commend you on your Stay-At-Home executive order, issued on March 22nd, and your overall leadership during this war against COVID-19. Just a few months ago, who would have imagined that we would be in the middle of a pandemic? The vast majority of us have been mindful of the need to take every precaution to avoid spreading this killer. There is much collective and individual anxiety. Most of us are responsible, will comply with your orders, and common sense. Many of us feel now, perhaps more than ever, a sense of "being in this together", a heightened awareness of our innate condition of inter-connectivity and interdependence. This consciousness is part and parcel to what makes us human. Our ability to work cooperatively is what has ensured our survival for these past 200,000 years as a species. But, just as equally "human", there are exceptions. We don't always act reasonably, nor with caution. There are still groups in our community who have not taken the situation seriously enough, who continue to meet, in large numbers, and inevitably put the entire community at risk of COVID-19. With your executive order, you exempted "Religious entities. Religious facilities, entities, and groups and religious gatherings, including weddings and funerals." by placing them under "Essential Businesses and Operations." And yet, on the same day, you stated, "My message to EVERYONE is that this is serious. When you are coming together, whether in a church or wherever--this is dangerous". Most religious leaders, no doubt took heed of your warning, and despite not being ordered to, have avoided holding services and opted for online programming, and other creative methods to serve their members. They and their congregations understand that religious expressions and experiences transcend buildings, and that there are many other ways to support and encourage another, and to look after their members. Overwhelmingly, most religious leaders take their positions quite seriously, and would never put their members in harm's way. They place the safety of their members, and the community, at the top of their priority list. After all, Without safety being met, all other needs, including spiritual ones, are, at best, compromised and at worst, impossible. The responsibilities of religious leadership are sobering and expansive. To endanger would be a dereliction of duties, and a forfeit of ethics and values.
Sadly, in some instances, this is exactly what is happening. Without mentioning particular churches, it is common knowledge that there are some religious bodies who continue to hold observances, often in large mass. And their leaders, who should know better (At this juncture, we all have an abundant access to exhaustive, straightforward scientific and political information and admonitions about the importance of social distancing "to flatten the curve") proudly declare that they will continue to do so. This is reckless and dangerous to everyone. We have ready examples of how places of worship can and do spread COVID-19. The most obvious, perhaps, is the infected "Patient 31", who flew from Wuhan, China to Incheon, South Korea. Her visits to the Daegu branch of the Shincheonji Church, to two separate and large services in February, brought her into contact with many people. As a result, she unknowingly spread the virus. She was the 31st case, and her attending church led to a subsequent mass cluster of COVID-19 cases, that Reuters notes "accounts for at least 60% of all cases in South Korea." (1). Here at home, in Bartow County, Georgia, there were 40 cases of COVID-19, many of which, according to health officials, are linked to one single church event on March 1st. (2). The Temple Young synagogue in New Rochelle, New York became the site of a containment area, in which the Governor had to send out the National Guard to enforce a quarantine of 1000 people. This was the result of a man who had attended events there, who tested positive for COVID-19 and the subsequent skyrocketing of cases in the immediate community. On March 11th, Governor Cuomo stated that while New York City only had 36 cases, there were 108 in New Rochelle alone; New York is 100 times larger than New Rochelle!(3).
The argument has been posited by some Ohio church leaders that while they agree with the concern of safety, the government does not have the right to ban their services, that to do so would be to restrict their individual religious practices, and overall freedom.
The First Amendment to the Constitution states that "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances." Religious liberties have always been a primary value for us as a country. Our government should not interfere with the expression of religion nor choose favorites between religions, theistic or non-theistic. At the same time, in the Preamble to the Declaration of Independence, we are told that it is true and self-evident that we have the unalienable right to life, then to liberty, followed by happiness. After all, if you're not alive, you will find neither freedom nor happiness. And the 14th Amendment says that states are not able to deny citizens "life, liberty or property, without due process of law". So, to be alive is the greatest of all rights. Isn't the fundamental priority and duty of government then to protect its citizens? The Establishment Clause, frequently cited by the opponents of a ban on churches during this pandemic, if anything favors a ban on physical meetings. Religious liberty should never be a license to cause harm to others, most especially when it creates a threat to life. When the government offers special accommodations to religion over life and other liberties, it ends up siding with that particular religion. Clearly, this virus cares not what God we may pray to, nor what philosophies we hold dear. With all due respect, Mr. Governor, with your executive order, you have, by defining religious entities and gatherings as "essential", favored religious liberty over public safety, all the while characterizing the exercise of such liberty as "dangerous.".
In Conclusion; these are strange and uncharted days, each uniquely difficult. Religion most definitely offers comfort and support to many, and attending services, in person, can be very edifying. But religion need not be dependent upon large, public gatherings nor even buildings. In our modern era, members can participate in online, or broadcast services, they can engage in video chat meetings with their religious leaders, and peers, as well as of course, with family members at home. Ultimately, it is the individual's personal relationship with either their deity, deities, or highest principles that is always the beginning and end of all religion. Regardless, religion should never inadvertently become weaponized by practices that place the lives of the participant and others at risk. This is when religious liberty becomes a form of tyranny. Anthony Fauci, American immunologist who serves as director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and as the most visible member of the White House Coronavirus Task Force, has repeatedly declared that to slow down COVID-19, we should avoid crowds of any more than ten people. This is a well known and oft repeated quote. Clearly, as it has been expounded upon here with the aforementioned various examples, those with COVID-19 can and have spread the virus relentlessly through church gatherings. And yet there are congregations who are meeting, on a regular basis, in large numbers. Their leaders are not looking after the best interests of their members, nor the surrounding state. For the safety and health of all Ohioans, we say that this must stop immediately. The compelling constitutional priority of our Ohio government, right now, should be to slow down the spread of COVID-19 through as much social distancing as is possible.
Governor Dewine, We hereby officially urge that that you use your constitutional power to issue a new executive order, in which church, and religious services, functions, and gatherings are re-defined as "non-essential", and that physical attendance be prohibited. This is our right as residents of The United States, and in Ohio.
Here is our petition.
Thank you again,
Social Worker, Founder and CO-Leader Of Butler County Pagan Gatherings, Political Pillar Leader for Ohio Pagan Alliance, and Actor
Kellie Marie Fightmaster
BA Human Services,
(1) Marco Hernandez, Simon Scarr and Manas Sharma, The Korean Clusters, Reuters (March 20, 2020), https://graphics.reuters.com/CHINA-HEALTH-SOUTHKOREA-CLUSTERS/0100B5G33SB/index.html
(2) Portia Bruner, Bartow County reports coronavirus cases stemming from Cartersville church event, Fox 5 Atlanta (March 22, 2020), https://www.fox5atlanta.com/news/bartow-county-reports-coronavirus-cases-stemming-from-cartersville-church-event.
(3) Joseph Spector, 'They have been remarkable': How a New York synagogue is coping as an epicenter of the US coronavirus spread, USA TODAY (March 12, 2020), https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2020/03/12/coronavirus-new-york-synagogue-coping-hotspot/5026107002/