OP-ED: Religious Freedom in Pennsylvania & COVID-19

Every aspect of life has been impacted by Governor Wolf’s response to the COVID-19 crisis. 

One of the areas with the most ambiguity and confusion from the Governor is regarding religious freedom, specifically whether Pennsylvanians can meet in churches and other places of worship. 

There have been mixed messages from our Governor on this, first exempting religious institutions from COVID restrictions, but then forbidding gatherings of more than 10 people. 

Fearing government reprisals, religious leaders complied with the restrictions during the most consequential part of the year that included Palm Sunday, Passover, Holy Week and Resurrection Sunday. 

Now, after nearly three months of not gathering, people are asking when to begin meeting in person for worship services.  Sensing the concerns of the people, President Trump weighed in on May 22, saying:

Today, I’m identifying houses of worship — churches, synagogue, and mosques — as essential places that provide essential services.  Some governors have deemed liquor stores and abortion clinics as essential but have left out churches and other houses of worship.  It’s not right.  So I’m correcting this injustice and calling houses of worship essential.  I call upon governors to allow our churches and places of worship to open right now.  If there’s any question, they’re going to have to call me, but they’re not going to be successful in that call.”

These words by President Trump were well aimed against the overreach of governors, who clearly exceeded their powers. 

Never, in more than nearly three centuries of history, have places of worship largely ceased in-person ministry.  Not even during the catastrophic Spanish Flu of 1918 did religious activity curtail.  In fact, it actually expanded as churches took great pains to care for the sick. 

Regardless of what one thinks of Governor Wolf’s reaction to COVID-19, your religious freedoms are clearly delineated. 

The constitution of both the United States and the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania go to great lengths to protect and defend the religious freedoms of the citizens. Our founding fathers referred to this as the “first freedom” – – – as they correctly surmised, without protections of a citizen’s religious freedom, no other freedom could exist.

This is made clear in the First Amendment of the US Constitution which says (abridged); “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble…”

The Pennsylvania State Constitution even goes further by stating in Article I Declaration of Rights, Religious Freedom “…no human authority can, in any case whatever, control or interfere with the rights of conscience…”

We are a free people, living in a constitutional republic and can assemble to worship.

Neither Governor Wolf, the Health Secretary, nor any government official can “in any case whatever, control or interfere” with this right. To infringe on this would be an unprecedented violation of people’s basic constitutional rights.

After nearly three months of fear-mongering and oppressive mandates, churches are spontaneously reopening and thereby reasserting their rights of conscience.

In the end, it is up to individual members of congregations and church leaders to decide if and when they wish to physically assemble.

This is a decision that should not be dictated by a Governor or bureaucrat in Harrisburg.

The decision – according to our constitution – is yours and yours alone.

If you are vulnerable health wise, then stay home.

If you don’t wish to take the risk, then that is your prerogative.

If you want to wear a mask, practice social-distancing and not shake hands, then you are welcome to make those decisions.

In the end, these are individual decisions and should not be filtered down from confusing and contradictory press statements from our Governor and Health Secretary. We are a free people, protected by clear and specific rights in our constitution. These precious freedoms have been taken for granted and this trying period has reminded us the value of our basic constitutional rights. 

Senator Mastriano represents the 33rd District in the Pennsylvania Senate. The District includes Adams County and parts of Franklin, Cumberland and York counties.