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Pastors: After the Supreme Court Ruling on Nevada Church Restrictions, What Do We Do Next?

Charles Taylor’s 2007 book “A Secular Age” has to be one of the most challenging books I’ve ever read. But it opens with the powerful idea that for most of human history, it was virtually impossible not to believe in God. Everything a person encountered had a supernatural explanation, and over past centuries it would have been very difficult to find someone who didn’t believe in and have respect for some kind of divine being. However, in the mid-nineteenth century, things began to massively shift, and today it’s the opposite.

We now live in a secular age where it has grown more and more difficult to find people who respect or are willing to acknowledge the possibility of God. I would even say it’s grown worse, and we live in an age where in the media, academia, and politics, belief in God has become a character flaw or superstition.

I thought of that book after hearing of the Supreme Court’s 5-4 ruling not to grant injunctive relief to churches in Nevada in light of the state’s inconsistent Covid-19 guidelines.

The SCOTUS blog plainly stated the decision: “A divided Supreme Court on Friday night turned down a request by a Nevada church for permission to hold services on the same terms that other facilities in the state, including casinos, are allowed to hold gatherings during the COVID-19 pandemic.”

For the record, I believe the virus is real and it is dangerous. We should take it seriously, and I’ve posted numerous times on this blog how church congregations should take proper precautions once they begin to re-assemble in person. And in the Nevada case, it’s worth noting that “The church stressed that it is willing to comply with rules regarding masks and social distancing; all that it was asking, it emphasized, was to be treated the same as everyone else.”

From the start of the lockdown, I’ve also been frustrated by the inconsistency and unfairness that was argued in this case. Last week I flew on a plane with hundreds of passengers crammed in next to each other for 4+ hours, but a barber shop or salon with 6-10 socially distanced chairs can’t be open in California. In the Nevada case, Justice Neil Gorsuch explained the inconsistency in his dissent:

“This is a simple case. Under the Governor’s edict, a 10-screen “multiplex” may host 500 moviegoers at any time. A casino, too, may cater to hundreds at once, with perhaps people huddled at craps table here and a similar number gather around every roulette wheel there. Large numbers and close quarters are fine in such places. But, churches, synagogues, and mosques are banned from admitting 50 worshippers—no matter how large the building, how distant the individuals, how many wear masks, no matter the precautions at all.”

It echos the ridiculous edict from California governor Gavin Newsom that if churches started assembling again, they wouldn’t be allowed to sing.

Keep in mind this isn’t about a church wanting to bend the rules. It’s about a religious community simply asking to be recognized on the same level as other civic institutions. And that recognition was denied and is now a legal precedent. We do indeed live in a secular age, and although I would have never imagined government interference at this level during my lifetime, here we are.

When it comes to the scriptural basis of the relationship between the church and the civil authorities, pastor John MacArthur wrote an eloquent post about that this week, and Ed Stetzer followed with his perspective – and I would encourage you to read both articles. But what neither mentioned was any practical indication of what we should do next. Should churches in restricted states defy the Supreme Court and open? Are we willing to do it under the possibility of arrest? Are there action steps we can take? What are the implications beyond Nevada? 

I do believe we have crossed a line and it’s hard to argue that religious communities, if not being targeted, are now discriminated against. As Justice Samuel Alito also explained in his dissent, “Allowing Calvary Chapel to admit 90 worshippers presents a greater public health risk than allowing casinos to operate at 50% capacity is hard to swallow.”

In today’s secular age, we live in a culture where vast numbers of political leaders do not respect or even recognize the freedom of religion our founders understood was so important. Alito wrote: “The Constitution guarantees the free exercise of religion. It says nothing about the freedom to play craps or blackjack, to feed tokens into a slot machine, or to engage in any other game of chance. But the Governor of Nevada apparently has different priorities.”

So how should we respond? From a media and communications perspective, here’s a list of ideas to consider:

1. First, base your strategy on your local congregation. Don’t defy orders because other churches are doing it, and don’t keep postponing gatherings for the same reason. Every church is unique and located in different parts of the country. Whatever decisions you make should be for the good of your local people. I think many churches should stay closed, but I also think many could start meeting again with proper precautions. But the decision should rest locally.

2. If you choose to speak out, this is the moment. Whether you re-open or stay closed, a line has been crossed and it’s time for articulate faith leaders to be heard in the public square. For a long time, a great many pastors in America refused to add their voice to political or legal discussions fearing it may drive some away from the church. Those who did it in the past often botched the message and focused on the wrong things, so I understand the concern. But while they have a good point, the question becomes, how long can we hold that line? How many of our rights as a faith community are we willing to give up before we take a stand?

3. Outside of your own pulpit, if you speak out, do it in unity with other local pastors and church leaders. Unless you’re extremely influential in your community, a single voice can be easily dismissed. But when faith leaders across the community, town, or city band together for a public statement, it’s more likely your voice will be heard.

4. Prepare a written statement. Get together with other church leaders in your area and craft an “official” statement or response to the Supreme Court ruling. Don’t wing it or be spontaneous. Have a concise message, and make it count.

5. Pick a spokesperson carefully. A spokesperson will be the pastor or church leader who will be the point person sharing your statement. That person should be good on camera, comfortable in a press environment, and someone who isn’t rattled easily. Don’t automatically pick the most recognized pastor or the pastor of the largest church in your area, pick the person who can express this particular message well. Plus, avoid anyone who might go “off script,” argue with reporters, or start on a tangent.

6. Avoid politics. This isn’t a Left or Right issue or Democratic or Republican issue. This isn’t about Trump or Pelosi, or even the governor of Nevada. This is about freedom of religion. Don’t get distracted. Focus on that.

7. Once you’re ready, call a press conference. Have your own cameras and microphones there to record the event, and if possible, make video or audio copies available to reporters who would like it. Pick a comfortable location (probably a local church sanctuary) and have people standing by to assist any journalists who come. If no one shows up, no problem – conduct the press conference to the video camera and then post it on Facebook, YouTube, and other platforms and encourage church members and friends to share. If a press conference is impossible in your area, at least submit your written response to a local newspaper, radio, or TV station and offer your availability for a follow up interview.

8. Activate social media. One thing most pastors and church leaders fail to understand is just how powerful social media can be for sharing a message. What if every person in every congregation in America started talking about it on their social media platforms? It would start a national conversation.

9. Very important: be gracious. This isn’t the time for anger or self-righteous breast-beating. When you study the lives of Early Church leaders, you discover they didn’t try to shout down the Roman authorities or yell at their accusers. They went to their deaths with grace, and that act alone had an enormous impact on turning the tide in favor of Christianity. We’ve not experienced anything near the persecution those faithful believers experienced, so the least we can do is follow the example of their attitude and behavior.

10. Finally, never forget that a secular culture won’t join us because of our theology, they’ll join us because of our actions. Our response to this very wrong court decision is only the start. Our actions in our community, to those in need, and outsiders will be what captures the public’s attention. There are a lot of great churches here in Los Angeles, but ask a local non-believer to name one, and they’ve usually heard about pastor Matthew Barnett and Angelus Temple’s The Dream Center – because they see the difference those believers are making in people’s lives. Jonathan Bock and I wrote about the concept in our book “The Way Back: How Christians Blew Our Credibility and How We Get It Back.” I’d encourage you to get a copy and start preaching out of it.

Remember that today we live in a culture where traditional respect (or even accommodation) for religion doesn’t exist anymore. Just because you’re the biggest church in town or the “First Church of Whatever” doesn’t buy any credibility these days. As Christians in a secular age, we have to earn the right to be heard, and with this court ruling, we’ll have to earn it every day starting now.

What do we do next? It’s up to you, but whatever decision you make, know that it’s time to make one.

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15 Comments

  1. I think you’re on the right track Phil but your first point needs to be a forth right take action message! Churches don’t need to be sheep they need to be lions of Judah – the rest of the piece is well thought out and gives good and meaningful direction on how to go about engaging! But right out the box give your audience the vision to be bold – it’s ok, no, it is a time to stand up and be counted!! Or sit down in an empty church…
    Just my thoughts, 😇

  2. Christianity is no longer the “home team,” as culture no longer shares values and principles of the historic Christian faith on which this nation was founded that remain vital to Jesus followers.

    According to consultant Eric Locksmore, today “we are actually in a pre-Christian, rather than a Post-Christian America. But that small change changes everything…we begin to see everything as an opportunity, not as opposition. We run to others not from others. We start creating and stop criticizing.”

    In that context, churches and Christian institutions have an opportunity to function more like the First Century Church that introduced Christianity to the world, finding common ground with the generation looking to deal with and restore things that are broken….”

    A. Larry Ross

    1. I couldn’t agree more with the analysis of this moment as “pre-Christian.” Perhaps it’s because I live in Los Angeles, but I regularly meet people with absolutely no concept or knowledge of religious faith. That fact should dramatically change our strategy for reaching this culture.

  3. Excellent Phil. I believe many Christians are waiting for leaders to take that lead and make a stand and they will follow them.

  4. Excellent analysis and excellent advice! If the current culture of the time period in which we currently find ourselves as reflected by this decision, and in light of Justices Alito’s and Kavanaugh’s frighteningly descriptive dissenting opinions (https://www.supremecourt.gov/opinions/19pdf/19a1070_08l1.pdf) aren’t enough to awaken the sleeping behemoth that is organized religion in America, I’m afraid of what lies ahead because a vitally important, fundamental constitutional protection has now been fully eroded and, with this decision, has finally escaped us all and it will not return unless the greater church takes a very visible stand and reaches out to forcibly take it back. Simply awaiting its return will never be enough and will most certainly fail. Thirty plus years of law practice and I’m shocked, puzzled and in complete disbelief as to how SCOTUS reached the dark decision they’ve now burdened and placed upon organized religion in America. Absolutely unbelievable!

    Matt Anthony
    The Church Law Group

    1. Thanks Matt. A number of people feel that because it was a Nevada issue, there aren’t implications beyond that state. But I agree with you that the impact will be much more significant outside the state as well.

    1. If you’re talking about MacArthur’s church, I’m not sure, but I think they did close at start of the lockdown. In his post he mentioned that they took all the precautions from the start, but now that churches have been locked down 40% of the year, he feels like it’s gone too far.

  5. Amen, Phil! That a casino can open, but a church made to hold 2.000 worshippers can not safely hold 51, is clearly an attack on the freedom of religion. May God place the right words and actions on the tongues and in the hearts of the right pastors to step up and lead the church forward with strength, unity and love in this most challenging time.

  6. I hear what you’re saying, but I think fighting this trend is the wrong move. The SCOTUS ruling bears this out as does all the court rulings against Christians exercising their so-called religious freedom agains gays. The culture is against the church and will only increase as Churches fight back. I know what I’m saying sounds cowardly, but I think it’s exactly what Jesus meant when he said “be wise as serpents, but gentle as doves”
    Mark my words, fighting back will only lead to more legal ruling that will eventually establish a massive legal framework that will be used to completely shut down the church.
    The smart move is to figure out how to do the work of the church by going around the challenges, not fighting them. Adapt and overcome. I hope pastors will swallow their pride and be smart for once, but I don’t think they will. They are going to keep stepping in the bear trap every time it’s laid out for them.

  7. Let me say here that Christian leaders are missing the signs and mark my words, they are going to cause their own destruction. This SCOTUS ruling should make them all take notice and see that dark days lie ahead for the church and Christians not only in the US, but around the world. But they will ignore it and continue to step on every bear trap that’s laid before them until one day there will be an entire body of case law that will cripple the church as we know it.
    Jesus said “be wise as serpents and gentle as doves”. That means don’t fight for your rights against a system and culture that wants you gone. You just give them ammunition to shut you down when you do. It’s been happening for years. Wake up. Work around restrictions. Be creative. Don’t fight or you will bring destruction on your own head.
    Dark days lie ahead. Be wise so there will be at least a little light when they come.

  8. Thanks, Phil! I wasn’t just referring to Grace Community Church, but the Church as a whole. Following the reasoning of MacArthur and Stetzer, one could argue that churches should have remained open the whole time. As Pastor John writes, “Compliance would be disobedience to our Lord’s clear commands.” That is true now, and it was true three months ago. I fully agree with him, but like many others, it took me some time to figure this out.

  9. I applaud your postings that congregations should take proper precautions when they resume assembly. But I do not understand your suggestion that the precaution of not allowing singing is inappropriate. COVID-19 can spread through aerosol transmission of small droplets from singing, making indoor singing a very, very high risk activity. The science looks to me to be quite clear on this. I am very thankful that when my church opens, there will be no congregational singing. We’ll have one soloist – who will be at a great distance away from everyone else.

  10. If one is singing while wearing a mask, then the social distancing should be greatly increased. From Emory Healthcare: “COVID-19 can also spread through very small droplets in the air- smaller than those expelled in a cough or sneeze. Activities like singing and loud voice produce these types of droplets and should therefore be avoided…If engaged in activities such as singing and loud voice use, stay at least 12 feet away from others, and wear a mask. Because wearing a face covering and standing far apart is antithetical to choral singing, at this time choral singing is not a recommended activity.”

    And as far as congregational singing, 12 feet of distancing would so severely limit the capacity of a sanctuary that I believe restricting singing at this time, even with everyone wearing a mask, is a very reasonable and appropriate safety precaution.

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