When worship turns into leisure, does it actually matter?

(RNS) – New York state-imposed coronavirus restrictions on places of worship, which the Supreme Court blocked in a recent 5-4 ruling, are under review by the U.S. Second Court of Appeals. Meanwhile, the pandemic continues to make cruel new highs. How should Christians react with Christmas?

While religious freedom was the subject of the Supreme Court’s attention under the First Amendment, the emotion that fuels the underlying conflict is reminiscent of the controversial book by Yale Law Professor Stephen Carter a quarter of a century ago, “The Culture of Disbelief: How American Law and Politics trivialize the religious. Dedication. ”A leitmotif on his pages was the notion that law and government elites view religion as a“ hobby ”that some Americans pursue as a pastime.

The same stance was evident in New York State’s claim that places of worship are like theaters, concerts, and lecture halls – all leisurely activities that draw crowds but pose both negligible and serious public health threats in this time of the pandemic . Indeed, state lawyers pointed out that unlike the secular places they mentioned, which were all closed by government orders, houses of worship in the most dangerous areas of the pandemic were allowed to be opened for Sabbath services as long as they were only 10 people attending.

By the time the case reached the country’s highest court, the state’s restrictions – stricter than those imposed by any other state – had been lifted and New York Governor Andrew Cuomo dismissed the ruling as merely “an expression of the (conservative) court. Philosophy and politics. “But he could reintroduce the same restrictions.

I tend to agree with Chief Justice John Roberts that the case should never have reached the Supreme Court, but not for the reasons he stated. New York’s severe restrictions were originally sparked by reports of a dangerously high infection rate among ultra-Orthodox Jews in Brooklyn, whose gatherings tend to be cramped and crowded. The rules also applied to the district’s Roman Catholic churches with 800 to 1,000 communicants – which is why one of the plaintiffs was the Diocese of Brooklyn. A more flexible approach by the state would likely have avoided a review by the Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court in Washington on January 27, 2020. (AP Photo / Mark Tenally)

Like other Roman Catholic bishops, Brooklyn Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio had strict rules for attending Sunday masses: very limited numbers, required masks, hand sanitizer applied (twice), and social distancing in all places within the Church. Aside from tight government restrictions, it was important for the bishop to designate pet stores, hardware stores, and brokerage stores as essential, while places of worship were classified as non-essential.

Like hobbies.

And yet there are around 1,700 mega-churches across the country, many of which actually resemble theaters, concert halls and lecture halls, both in their structure and in their interiors.

For example, Joel Osteens Lakewood Church, a mega-church in Houston that has 43,500 visitors a week, is a converted sports arena that seats nearly 17,000, excluding the thousands who watch Osteen’s programs on television. This program consists entirely of a lecture by Osteen on an empty stage. There are no hymns, no prayers, not even a cross or other symbol suggesting that the worship of God is going on. However, those in person are entertained off-camera by lively music with uplifting lyrics. Osteen closed his church doors for a while, but they are wide open for Christmas.

At Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, California, originally created by Baptist pastor Rick Warren as a welcoming space “for those who don’t like church,” members of the congregation of more than 20,000 – prior to the outbreak of the pandemic – were offered an offer to select the Places to worship based on whether you prefer Hawaiian, rural western, traditional, or contemporary Christian music. Otherwise, everyone heard the same, straightforward evangelical sermon that came from the simple main auditorium. Afterwards, they could all chat over coffee and snacks from a Starbucks-style coffee bar in the center of the church’s 120-acre campus.

There are more than 1,700 mega-churches in the United States, and many of them achieved mega-status by reserving Sunday services for elaborate “tracing” services to attract – and yes, entertain – people looking for a church to match want to join, belong to a community or even just the curious. Under this structure, weekday evenings were provided for small group meetings of the obligated, for Bible study or other forms of Christian discipleship. Saddleback is rightly celebrated for its cell-like organization of its most dedicated members. Under this rule, the line between Sunday worship and entertainment is often difficult to see.

According to the First Amendment, citizens can worship freely without government interference. But when civil authorities, faced with a killer virus and the responsibility to contain it by limiting large gatherings, see that huge churches are padded and designed like theater auditoriums for the public, no one should be surprised when they compare places of worship to what is happening in them Theaters and concert and lecture halls and treat them accordingly.

Most Roman Catholic cathedrals are mega-churches too, and every Christmas and Easter their pastors in their parishes (and collections) swell with dilapidated Catholics looking for a nostalgic hour to immerse themselves in the liturgies they once used as children knew.

Worship is no more entertainment than religion is a hobby. From the beginning, Christians gathered together to break bread as Jesus commanded them to do, and during the Roman persecution they risked their lives to worship Him as Lord in underground catacombs. Centuries ago, Jews also gathered to pray and learn from Torah readings. In this way they worshiped God and obeyed his law. Nowhere is it reported that Christians or Jews, or in later centuries Muslims, gathered to be entertained.

Certainly, in these times of the pandemic, distinction and restraint are required on both sides of the church-state gap. Christmas services are special Christian celebrations, but churches would do well this year to divide places up among a limited number of regular worshipers and only invite visitors to watch TV at home at Christmas and Easter, for entertainment or nostalgia.

(Kenneth L. Woodward is the former religion editor for Newsweek and the author of “Getting Religion: Faith, Culture, and Politics from the Age of Eisenhower to the Rise of Trump.” The views expressed in this comment do not necessarily reflect those of religion, the News Service.)

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