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Churches Push Back Against Coronavirus Restrictions

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Religious leaders in Europe and the U.S. are pushing back harder against coronavirus restrictions than during the pandemic’s first wave, invoking their right to religious freedom and arguing churches are safe.

Protests in France and Britain, where bans on communal worship are now in place, have brought governments to the negotiating table with religious leaders. The Catholic diocese of Brooklyn, one of the largest in the U.S., is appealing to the U.S. Supreme Court against numerical limits on worshipers.

Church leaders were largely deferential during the spring lockdowns to curb the spread of Covid-19. Many are taking a different tack now, convinced churches shouldn’t be treated more strictly than secular activities.

“We have demonstrated, by our action, that places of worship and public worship can be made safe from Covid transmission,” wrote a group of British faith leaders to Prime Minister Boris Johnson earlier this month.

Some major European countries that imposed worship bans in the spring, including Germany, Italy and Spain, haven’t so far done so again. But many governments say restrictions on collective worship are necessary to halt the strong increase of infections, hospitalizations and deaths from Covid-19 that has swept across most Western countries this fall. In the U.S., jurisdictions are imposing attendance limitations of varying degrees depending on the local severity of the surge.

A Catholic priest listened to confession during a gathering to call for the reopening of places of worship in Nantes, France, on Nov. 15.



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sebastien salom-gomis/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images

A study this summer by Johns Hopkins University researchers found that people who had visited a house of worship three or more times in the previous two weeks reported coronavirus infections 16 times as often as those who hadn’t visited. The study didn’t distinguish between visits to churches for worship or other purposes such as meals.

That hasn’t satisfied religious groups, who argue they are being unjustly targeted.

The Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court this month to hear its case against New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, arguing that government rules that impose caps of as low as 10 persons per Mass depending on rates of infection violate the church’s First-Amendment rights. Also this month, a group of Orthodox Jewish organizations in New York petitioned the court challenging the same policy,  which they said “targets religious institutions for adverse treatment.”

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The state replied on Wednesday, arguing it is treating indoor religious gatherings more favorably than comparably risky secular activities, such as bowling alleys, arcades, movie theaters and fitness centers, which have been fully shut down in some areas at moments of peak infection.

The court, which hasn’t said it would hear the case, ruled twice this year, both times by a vote of 5-4, against relaxing anti-contagion restrictions on worship. But the confirmation of Justice Amy Coney Barrett last month has expanded the court’s conservative majority.

Conservative Justice Samuel Alito voiced concern this month about restrictions on public worship and other activities he said would ordinarily be protected by the First Amendment.

A woman held a placard that said “We want Mass” during a rally in Versailles, France, on Nov. 15.



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martin bureau/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images

“The pandemic has resulted in previously unimaginable restrictions on individual liberty,” Justice Alito said.

U.S. restrictions on church attendance vary by place and religious groups hold different attitudes toward them.

A study this summer by the Pew Research Center found Evangelical Protestants and Catholics more likely than other U.S. Christians to favor reopening churches during the pandemic.

The Catholic Church, the largest U.S. denomination, shut down communal worship across the country in March, often voluntarily. But in late spring, as business reopened, bishops in Wisconsin and Minnesota successfully challenged what they deemed unfairly strict caps on attendance.

In September, Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone of San Francisco led a procession through the city’s Mission District against the mayor’s plan to cap church attendance at 25 people. The city now sets the limit at 25% of a church’s capacity, up to 100 people.

Religious groups are putting up more resistance in Europe too.

France’s Catholic bishops didn’t publicly protest the first national lockdown until the government announced in late April that businesses could reopen before public worship resumed. The bishops expressed regret and the “impatience of the faithful to gather together.” But some conservative Catholic groups appealed to France’s highest administrative court, which made the government allow public worship earlier than planned.

In late October, amid a resurgence of the pandemic, the French government decreed new restrictions, including a ban on communal worship, with an exception for funerals with up to 30 people, until at least Dec. 1. This time, the French bishops appealed straightaway to the same court, claiming the decree “undermines the freedom of worship which is one of the fundamental freedoms in our country.”

People inside St. Michael’s Church, Brooklyn, New York City, on May 26.



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Stephanie Keith/Getty Images

“The bishops were more timid [in the spring], in part because we were all still discovering this virus and didn’t know how to react,” said Antoine-Marie Izoard, editor of the Catholic magazine Famille Chrétienne. “But now, seeing that the lockdown is much lighter, the church said ‘why are we closed while businesses are open?’”

The court declined this month to change the policy, saying it was justified by the health emergency. Young Catholic activists started an online petition in protest, which has gathered more than 106,000 signatures. They also held demonstrations outside churches, which last Sunday had spread to about 30 cities, with thousands of participants.

The office of Prime Minister Jean Castex said Monday that the government and religious groups would now collaborate on guidelines to “permit the resumption of worship as soon as health conditions allow.”

In Britain, religious groups generally complied without demur with a national lockdown this spring. The Church of England, the country’s largest denomination, voluntarily closed its churches even for private prayer and told clergy not to live stream worship services from them.

This month, after the government announced a lockdown for England, including a ban on communal worship except for funerals with up to 30 people, religious leaders including Archbishop Justin Welby of Canterbury, leader of the Church of England, took another approach with their letter of protest to Mr. Johnson.

Separately, a group led by Ade Omooba, a Protestant pastor, has taken legal action against the government before the U.K.’s High Court, claiming the ban violates the country’s human rights act.

A U.K. government spokesperson said on Wednesday that the ban was “vital in tackling the spread of the virus” and that officials were working closely with senior faith leaders on the matter.

Write to Francis X. Rocca at francis.rocca@wsj.com

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