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When Faith and Fellowship Kills

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This week, Christians and Jews will celebrate Holy Week and Passover, and later in the month, Muslims will begin Ramadan. Millions of Americans will practice their sacred rituals, but without the fellowship that usually accompanies them, thanks to social distancing guidelines and community lockdowns.

At least that is the hope of local and state governments—and epidemiologists like me.

But inexplicably, one group is still holding out: faith-based leaders who have chosen to ignore stay-at-home orders to hold in-person religious services. At least 11 states, after intense lobbying by evangelical groups, have deemed religious services as “essential activities.”

As an observant Jew and a person of science, I am appalled and terrified by this blind spot. The decision to speak and sing with others, side-by-side and face-to-face, at the very moment COVID-19 is reaching its peak will cause many deaths. Not just of participants but their loved ones and strangers they may encounter.

Scientific evidence points to religious gatherings as deadly coronavirus hotspots. In its new policy brief, the Center for World Religions, Diplomacy, and Conflict Resolution at George Mason University asserts that religious gatherings are sparking COVID-19 transmission across every religious group in all parts of the U.S. and around the world.

Almost half of all COVID-19 cases in South Korea’s epidemic are linked to a single church. So it is difficult to watch American faith leaders, entrusted fully by their flock, performing the magical thinking required to fill their pews and their collection plates.

Sadly, I believe that this defiance is driven not as much by faith but by politics. There is an understandable desire among supporters of the current Administration to downplay the seriousness of the epidemic under the guise of “religious freedom.”

As I and my colleagues observed so often during the height of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, denial leads to risky behavior—and people die as a consequence.

It is time for people to speak out, for their lives and their health. The COVID-19 Emergency Response Group—a coalition of public health experts, academics, religious leaders, and civic organizations—is calling for urgent action by the White House, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and governors to implement and enforce social distancing orders during Easter, Passover, and Ramadan in order to reduce COVID-19 transmission and save as many lives as possible.

I also want to call on people of faith to sound the alarm. Urge your family, friends, neighbors and congregants to stay home and enjoy the sacraments and fellowship from afar.

To quote my dear colleague Rev. Dr. Rodney S. Sadler, Jr., Director of the Center for Social Justice and Reconciliation at Union Presbyterian Seminary: “Our fellowship should be virtual, employing the technology God has given us to protect the ‘weaker’ members, so that the whole body remains whole. God stands with us in these perilous times. Whether in the building together or individually in our homes, God remains with us.”

At this difficult time for our society, it is instinctive to turn to our faith. But we must also have faith in God’s creations: science and nature. And we must protect each other.

 Love God. Stay home. Save lives.

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