Like most people, Rabbi Fred Guttman has spent the last week adjusting to a strange new life, one upended by COVID-19, the illness caused by the new coronavirus.
Accustomed to a full crowd at Greensboro’s Temple Emanuel each Friday and Saturday, Guttman has converted both adult and youth religious services to online-only meetings conducted over the video-conferencing app Zoom. He has also organized a regular virtual lunch on Wednesdays for the elderly members of his community that he calls “a schmooze with the Rabbi.”
Now he’s working to connect with children who, with their schools closed, are suddenly at home. The kids’ multimedia presentations will be more engaging than dull talking head video conferences. “We’re not doing social distancing,” Guttman told Policy Watch this week. “Physical distancing, yes — but social distancing, absolutely not.”
When Gov. Roy Cooper issued an executive order this week prohibiting gatherings of 100 people or more (later revised to 50), many faith communities faced a radical rethinking of how they would serve their congregations. Schools have switched to online learning. Restaurants and bars have closed their dining areas, switching to carry-out and delivery service. Apart from criticism from a few conservatives, many people support Cooper’s order, which legal experts say is lawful.
Suspending in-person services wasn’t a difficult decision in the face of a swiftly spreading pandemic, said Rev. Jennifer Copeland, executive director of the NC Council of Churches. “If you turn to the Scripture, you see that community is the number one thing that God cares about,” said Copeland, an ordained minister in the United Methodist Church. “I think it’s an imperative for people of faith to stay home and protect their community — and not just your faith community, but the entire community.”
The NC Council of Churches represents 18 Christian denominations and over 6,200 congregations serving about 1.5 million North Carolinians.
So far, Copeland said, none of them have objected to suspending in-person worship.
“My own congregation here in Durham went to an online service,” Copeland said. “There are challenges, but we’ve done it.”
Some older people don’t have the latest technology needed to view worship services on the web, Copeland said. But most of them at least have email, and younger people are helping them .
“Some of them, like my mother, are fortunate to have a grandson who works in the computer tech field,” Copeland said. “I think that’s what these faith communities are all going to do, find a wraparound care solution.”
Nida Allam, the Durham County Commissioner-elect, who recently became the first Muslim woman to be elected to office in North Carolina, has been praying at home with her family. She and her husband are self-quarantining after a trip to Spain.
She misses her mosque and the fellowship it provides, she said, but her religious community is also committed to slowing the spread of the virus, especially among members who are most at-risk.
“The people who tend to come to mosque most frequently will be the elder members of the community,” Allam told Policy Watch this week. “So we’re trying not to congregate as much. The younger people in the community who have work or school may not be able to go as much in the day. Right now it’s just best not to.
“Right now we really have to check our own privilege,” Allam said. “We may be young, we may be healthy, but who could we pass this along to?”
Some people haven’t fully embraced the governor’s order, at least philosophically.
On Facebook, Al Bouldin, a former chairman of the Guilford County Republican Party, denounced the order shortly after it was issued.
“No one should have the power to tell us we can’t attend our churches, which is suspending our First Amendment rights,” Bouldin said this week. “I don’t see the level of threat to public health and safety rising to the level of even considering doing away with basic rights. To give recommendations, I think is common sense; the overwhelming majority of people would comply with recommendations. But to make it an order is a different thing.”
However, Bouldin acknowledged that it’s unlikely law enforcement would arrest a pastor or disperse a congregation that chooses to meet in defiance of the order.
Lt. Gov. Dan Forest released a scathing statement this week opposing Gov. Cooper’s executive order, which shut down bars and restaurants, except for delivery and carry-out. Forest walked back his criticism after many North Carolinians objected to his stance.
Legal experts agree the governor is on solid political footing in issuing the order.
Bill Marshall, the William Rand Kenan, Jr. Distinguished Professor at UNC Law School, said while there’s little U.S. Supreme Court case law on such actions, there are some applicable precedents.
The 1905 case Jacobson v. Massachusetts upheld the authority of states to require vaccinations, even over religious objections, to protect public safety. “I think if there’s reason to believe the government is acting in good faith in fighting this virus, the government is going to be able to impose limits,” Marshall said. “I think in the case of a pandemic like this, any court is going to give wide latitude.”
Cooper’s order does not mention religious gatherings specifically; it treats all gatherings equally. That’s important, Marshall said, because the courts have repeatedly found that religious speech does not enjoy a greater protection than secular speech. But they must be treated equally.
“If the government limits First Amendment rights, it has to do so equally and across the board,” Marshall said. “He seems to be doing it right.”
Public trust and public safety
If safety measures and restrictions on movement increase, it’s unclear how the public could react. Marc Hetherington, a Distinguished Bicentennial Professor of Political Science at UNC-Chapel Hill, told Policy Watch this week that trust in local, state or federal government is key to whether people will comply.
That trust, though, has eroded since the late 1960’s and 1970’s, when the public became disillusioned over the Vietnam War and Watergate. “When we first started asking the question about trust in government to do the right thing, the percentage of Americans who said they trusted their government to do the right thing at least most of the time was upwards of 70 percent,” Hetherington said. “Now it’s around 20.”
Though there have been some slight upticks in trust during the Reagan and Clinton presidencies, it has continued to decline. People tend to trust the level of government closest to them — local, then state, and finally, federal — but even faith in cities and counties has slumped.
There is a party split on the issue, Hetherington said. Republicans tend to distrust government more than Democrats, though both parties tend to trust government more when their own party is in power.
“The next question is, ‘Do these low levels of trust matter? Does it effect public opinion, the behaviors people engage in?’” Hetherington said. “The answer seems to be, yes. People who don’t trust government much tend to comply with it less. They tend to disobey government orders. They tend not to consider precautions given by the government as necessary.”
The Republican party has spent decades telling people that government is incompetent and that the media can’t be trusted, Hetherington said. That’s an effective way of getting elected, he said, but in a crisis like the pandemic, people need to believe government can and should be trusted, and that the media are providing vital and accurate information.
“It’s a scary time for people to believe their government and media aren’t worth listening to,” Hetherington said.
More may soon be asked of Americans than at any time since World War II, when the government implemented widespread rationing.
“People are being asked in a sense to make really big sacrifices, the way they were back then,” he said. “And people came through then — they planted victory gardens, they turned out their lights during blackout hours to not provide targets. Americans have, at least during a time of war, come through and followed directions.”
But that occurred during a different generation 75 years ago. “It’s hard to say whether this is happening in the same kind of society, now,” he said.