Guest Columnist

Churches should not receive special treatment

A church member prays during a Good Friday service at St. Ambrose Cathedral, Friday, April 10, 2020, in Des Moines, Iowa
A church member prays during a Good Friday service at St. Ambrose Cathedral, Friday, April 10, 2020, in Des Moines, Iowa. COVID-19 causes mild or moderate symptoms for most people, but for some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness or death. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

As the Founding and Senior Pastors of Sanctuary Community Church, we take exception to the exceptionalism that Governor Kim Reynolds is showing to religious institutions in Iowa during the Covid-19 pandemic. Earlier in April, Governor Reynolds called for a day of prayer that elevated, from her office, religiousness with a particular focus on the Judeo-Christian tradition. This week she announced that Iowa would permit only religious institutions to manage their own gatherings across all counties in the state: “social, community, recreational, leisure, and sporting gatherings and events of more than 10 people shall continue to be prohibited . . . Spiritual and religious gatherings are not prohibited by this section.” We as church pastors ask, Why?

Governor Reynolds stated in her press briefing that this exception was made, “recognizing the significant constitutional liberties involved.” But this is nonsense.

If religious entities are being treated just like other social entities, particularly in the midst of a national emergency, then there is no constitutional prohibition against limiting gatherings. Problems — both legal and social — instead arise when religious groups are treated differently than all other entities.

Some Iowa legislators nonetheless responded to her proclamation with enthusiasm, saying, “Iowa’s faith-based community can be trusted to make wise decisions.” But again the implied exceptionalism — why are Iowa religious leaders more trustworthy than other Iowans when it comes to resisting the temptation to be social? What does this communicate to the owners and managers of non-religious establishments about their (un)trustworthiness?

And what about individuals for whom secular gathering is their form of meaningful community? Why should we get to enjoy each other’s company, while they do not? Governor Reynolds’ policy may actually compromise our relating to those whom it does not benefit, heightening the perception of unfair specialness given to organizations such as ours. The prayer and unique permissions do not seem spiritual, but rather appear to be acts of political expediency designed to curry accolades from specific support groups and to deflect attention away from critique.

We ourselves feel uneasy with how the acts include us. God, as far as we can tell, neither needs the help nor desires special privileges for those who believe. And we as religious institutions will be ascribed responsibility if, because of the exceptionalism, we increase the duration and lethality of this pandemic.

Our church is one of many that has chosen to not take advantage of the Governor’s permissiveness. We as pastors long for our parishioners to again experience the connection to God and to each other that we enjoy when we gather together in person on a Sunday morning. But we all as Iowans are all in this Covid pandemic thing together. Our holy text tells us: “God does not show partiality!” And neither should we.

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Adey and Tom Wassink are the founding and senior pastors of Sanctuary Community Church in Coralville.

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