On Churches Suing the Governor of California

by Glenn on May 12, 2020

Ten churches in Oregon are suing Governor Kate Brown over her restrictions on gatherings. I think this is perfectly ridiculous. I am writing this to say so.

The article I read may be found here.


Last week, a motion for a temporary restraining order was filed by an attorney named Ray D. Hacke (depending on the pronunciation, maybe one of the most unfortunately—or appropriately?—named lawyers ever), who is based in Salem. He is quoted as saying,

“If we’re risking our lives to go to church, if we survive great. If we die, then we’re going to heaven. If we want to take that risk, then it’s on us.”

According to the article, the churches “have so far respected the governor’s order banning gatherings of more than 25 people and discouraging Oregonians from being around more than 10 people at a time,” but they “no longer believe such an order is justified.”

While the governor on Thursday increased the permissible size of gatherings to 25, apparently that didn’t go far enough. Hacke complains, “If a congregation has 250 members, what are they going to do? Hold 10 services? That’s just not realistic. It’s an infringement on religious liberty.’’ They are through with “having their rights trampled on with no end in sight.’’

According to the governor’s spokeswoman, Liz Merah, churches are still able to “tend to the spiritual needs of their congregations without putting the health and safety of their entire communities at risk.” That rings true for me. We’ve had to be creative as a church and we’ve had to accept the fact that things are less than ideal right now. That’s life. It’s not always the way we would like. Isn’t there a song about that? I certainly understand that if you have a larger church, it’s more complicated to try and be creative and hold things together. But it seems like thinking hard and being imaginative is the place to start rather than demanding that we go back to business as usual. There will not be business as usual for the near term. In fact, there may need to be new business as usual. That will take us some time to figure out.

First Thoughts

First, this is really annoying. That needs to be said. It’s hard to see how anything improves with this lawsuit. I can see all sorts of reasons for the church to sue the government. This isn’t one of them. As far as I can tell, Governor Kate Brown has saved the lives of Oregonians. We can question how many, but the fact that we’ve only had 3,286 cases of COVID-19 and 130 deaths is something that churches should be rejoicing in. We should be thanking Governor Brown. And, if there are complaints to be leveled at her, it doesn’t seem like the church should be first in line. It’s an incredibly complicated circumstance we find ourselves in. We have a disease that when it makes you sick can make you really sick. And it disproportionately affects the elderly, those whose health is compromised, and certain ethnic groups. And the calculus of savings lives over against all other concerns—economic, educational, spiritual—is tough to think through. I’m willing to give some grace toward the emphasis on saving lives.

Second, what’s next? Let’s say there is a judge who agrees with these churches, then what are they going to do? Are they seriously going to gather in large groups during a pandemic? What are they hoping to achieve? And why now? What has changed? Why do they believe the governor’s order is no longer justified? What do they know that the health experts don’t? There wasn’t a sufficient explanation of why the order should be lifted right now. The odds of getting the virus are obviously lower here in Oregon than they are in, say, New York. If churches in New York were doing this, we’d all question their sanity. Here, it’s a question of wisdom. At best this lawsuit seems unwise.

Third, I don’t like this cavalier attitude toward human life. The statement was, “If we’re risking our lives to go to church, if we survive great. If we die, then we’re going to heaven. If we want to take that risk, then it’s on us.” Of course it’s not that simple, is it? For the Christian, we believe the timing of our deaths is in some way in God’s hands. In other words, God decides when our lives are over and we shouldn’t hasten them.

End of life decisions are always difficult because we don’t want to place ourselves in the role of God. I find myself torn over people who are experiencing great suffering and want to die. Assisted suicide is a difficult subject. Let’s leave aside the difficult cases that make that such a troubling issue and simply address a more general principle with a question: Should I do things that hasten my demise? I think in general the question is no. So I shouldn’t eat fast food for every meal every day because that is putting my life at risk. I shouldn’t smoke. And maybe I shouldn’t meet with large groups of people in the midst of a pandemic.

It’s complicated though, because while we say we shouldn’t play God, we do tend to celebrate self-sacrifice as a worthy thing. We honor our military for just that reason. I love that quote (Orwell? Churchill?), “We sleep soundly in our beds because rough men stand ready in the night to visit violence on those who would harm us.” Those who serve in the military are willing to sacrifice their lives for us. We honor them for good reason. Further, we celebrate the doctors and nurses and other health care workers who are dealing with those who have COVID-19. It’s dangerous and stressful for them and it’s tough on their families, too. We celebrate those firefighters who on 9/11 ran into the World Trade Center.

So while self-sacrifice can be lauded, in general we stand against self-destruction. And so I don’t understand this Let me kill myself if I want approach, which may not be what they are literally saying, but it is the effect, isn’t it? This lawsuit seems wrong to the extent that they are playing God, potentially hastening their own death. There is an admission that there is a risk which is downplayed mightily.

With this acknowledgment of risk, I think there is a distinction that needs to be made between risks I am willing to take and my putting another person in harm’s way. What makes the lawsuit and the statement of the lawyer so troubling is that while it’s one thing to be cavalier with your own life—I admire how blithe Hacke is to go to God—I wonder about someone who intentionally puts others at risk. As a pastor, If I was sick, would I visit someone in the hospital who had immune issues? Absolutely not. Let’s say after I demand my right to assemble and somehow get a crowd to gather with me, what happens if I have the virus and don’t know it? It feels like one thing to put myself at risk, it feels quite another to put others in danger. It would be great to hear a plan for protecting human life to accompany this lawsuit.

I suppose if the members of these congregations intended to meet together and have no contact with anyone outside of their congregations, I wouldn’t object. They should enjoy their joyful though risky connection with each other. But then they shouldn’t leave that meeting and head to the supermarket. The song is, “They’ll know we are Christians by our love” not “They’ll know we are Christians by our absolute disregard for the legitimate health concerns of others.”

There is a tension between faith and science. It’s not always been an easy relationship. When we have a headache, do we pray for God’s healing or do we take some ibuprofen? Christians haven’t always been on the right side of what we know today to be true. Our dogma sometimes gets in the way of facts. When Copernicus was trying to teach a “sun-centered” understanding of the solar system, he ran into, among others, Martin Luther who took a literal approach to Scripture:

“‘The fool wants to overturn the whole science of astronomy,’ said Luther ‘but, according to the Scripture, Joshua bade the sun and not the earth to stand still.’” [1]

Of course, Luther during the plague also said,

“I shall ask God mercifully to protect us. Then I shall fumigate, help purify the air, administer medicine, and take it. I shall avoid places and persons where my presence is not needed in order not to become contaminated and thus perchance infect and pollute others, and so cause their death as a result of my negligence. If God should wish to take me, he will surely find me and I have done what he has expected of me and so I am not responsible for either my own death or the death of others. If my neighbor needs me, however, I shall not avoid place or person, but will go freely.” [2]

The lack of consideration evidenced by these churches is astounding. By consideration I don’t mean politeness, although that is certainly part of this. You wouldn’t sneeze in someone’s face. That’s bad manners for sure, but it’s also a demonstrable lack of love if you give your sickness to someone else. Perhaps, under these circumstances, it’s a crime. Maybe they are just playing the odds. The mortality rate is something like 6%. Perhaps less. If there was more testing,  we might find it’s much less. It’s hard to know. In the meantime it seems like these churches are saying that they can take a 6% hit on the size of their congregations or are willing to see 6% of their congregations die and are okay with that.

Fourth, in the statement of the lawyer there is something like a lie. I can’t say it’s an outright untruth, but it’s certainly ungracious at best. He says rights are being “trampled on with no end in sight.” I disagree that there is no end in sight. I think we are beginning to see the end, now. There is light at the end of the tunnel, but we don’t want that light to be an oncoming train. So patience should be the order of the day. We may not know the date we can meet safely, but we can sort of see the conditions we need to meet safely that would determine a date. We need statistically insignificant numbers of cases or a vaccine. One or the other will be here sooner or later. It’s not as foggy as we think. What we don’t want is an out-of-control virus wreaking havoc in our state. In the meantime, the governor is relaxing restrictions on those parts of the population (young people) who are not in so much danger and activities (camping programs, for example) that are safe for the participants.

Along with the idea of “no end is in sight” is the complaint that rights are being trampled on. In the same way there is tension between faith and science, there is tension between the authority of the church and the authority of the state. We are taught to submit to our rulers. But then we live in a society that guarantees free speech and so we can speak up. We may sue. The claim here is that the state is somehow abusing its authority. It’s worth noting that the church is not being singled out. That needs to be acknowledged. Schools are also closed. Most businesses are closed. This idea of “trampled on” just doesn’t ring true. I believe intentions matter. We can’t always understand the motives of people’s hearts, but there is nothing in the actions of our governor that suggests anything other than the desire to save human lives. It’s as though we are about to step off a curb and get hit by a car and someone grabs us to pull us back and we complain that it’s an assault: “You can’t touch me. I have rights.” It’s hard to understand the motivations of the churches who are suing.

The most un-Christian thoughts I have had these last weeks has been toward other Christians who believe that their faith makes them immune to COVID-19. The Christians in this particular case aren’t claiming that kind of immunity, but they are claiming that their rights to assemble are greater than the responsibility of the government for public health and safety in the midst of these confusing circumstances. Why would they even question government authority under these circumstances? The government is not saying they can’t preach the gospel. The government is not saying they can’t meet in smaller groups. Actually, the government is saying we are responsible to and for each other, which feels like a Christian impulse.

I guess part of this that I question is the actual level of commitment. If you really felt your rights were being trampled on, wouldn’t you simply ignore the stay-in-place order? Force the issue. These churches could take the route of civil disobedience. Others have. So why don’t they?  Do they recognize the danger but want to draw attention to themselves? Do they honestly believe the government is simply doing this so they as a church cannot meet? These churches could actually meet and force the government to arrest them. The fact that they are suing could be the desire to respect authority. I guess the test will be if a judge tells them no. Then what will they do? I guess we will understand their level of commitment at that point.



[1] David Ewing Duncan, Calendar: Humanity’s Epic Struggle to Determine a True and Accurate Year (New York: Avon Book, 1998), p. 184.

[2] https://frenchpress.thedispatch.com/p/coronavirus-and-our-sacred-duty-to

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[…] This is an update to this post. […]

by Churches Suing the Governor of Oregon | Pt. 2 « glennaustin.com on 19 May 2020 at 5:50 pm. #