WASHINGTON -- Gathering to pray feels more important than ever for many Americans of faith, as COVID-19 cases top 2 million in the United States and communities roil with anger about police brutality and systemic racism.
Yet many governors and city leaders still prohibit large religious gatherings, angering some clergy -- even those who backed pandemic-related restrictions imposed months ago -- who see the continuing curbs on services as an attack on their civil rights.
Religious leaders, congregations and individuals have filed lawsuits against governors, mayors and other officials in at least 30 states.
President Donald Trump poured fuel on the fire two weeks ago. "I call on governors to allow places of worship to open right now," he told reporters, calling the entities essential. "These are places that hold our society together and keep our people united."
In late April, roughly 2 in 3 states had restricted or prohibited religious gatherings, according to the Pew Research Center. (The Pew Charitable Trusts funds the center and Stateline.) By early June, that number had declined to 20 states, according to the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit law firm.
Any gathering could lead to the spread of the coronavirus, including church services, as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has shown. In March, about a third of 62 worshippers at an Arkansas church tested positive for COVID-19. Three people died after two symptomatic people attended a service.
The CDC called a mid-March choir practice at a Washington state church a superspreading event after an asymptomatic attendee transmitted the disease to 52 of 61 people. The highly contagious gathering led to two deaths.
Courts have ruled that the government can restrict meetings to protect the public -- but under the narrowest restrictions and for the shortest time necessary, said Gene Policinski, CEO of the Freedom Forum Institute and its First Amendment Center, in an interview.
"Any time government restricts our rights for any reason, it bears attention from all of us," he said. "The government better have a pretty darn good reason."
Religious liberty advocates have been swamped with requests for help.