The S.C. House passed a bill Wednesday declaring that churches are “essential services” that can’t be forced to close during a state of emergency, and some Washington lobbying group fired off an announcement heralding the “important step” South Carolina had just taken to defend our First Amendment right to worship “by enabling religious organizations to keep their doors open and protecting them from discrimination based on their religious identity or constitutionally protected conduct.”
H.3105 would be worth celebrating if this were New York. Or California. Or any place where the government forced churches to close during the pandemic while they let the liquor stores stay in business.
But this is South Carolina, where churches are not under attack, and where there’s absolutely no reason to suspect that they might ever possibly maybe one day be.
And this is not just a harmless little bill that soothes hurt feelings over the fact that nobody declared churches “essential” — as if Christians need anyone to tell us that churches are essential — and that allows supporters to brag about how they’re protecting Christians.
It’s a harmful little bill that feeds the false narrative that the big bad government has been shutting down our churches.
People who want to hate government can find plenty of fact-based reasons to hate government; we don’t need to make up more.
Yes, supporters acknowledged during the House debate that government hadn’t closed any churches in South Carolina, with Rep. Richie Yow describing his bill as a way to say "thank you" to churches for their work during COVID-19. You know, the sort of thing the Legislature usually does through thank-you resolutions, not by amending state law. And no, as someone who has spent the past 370 days working with my priest to keep our parishioners connected and continuing to serve as the hands of Christ even during the COVID-19 pandemic — in part by developing, launching and maintaining our livestream ministry — I am not anti-church.
But I’m not antigovernment either.
Unfortunately, the government-is-shuttering-churches narrative is an easy sell because of California and New York, and a smattering of U.S. cities and whole countries that did indeed shut down churches. And people who consume a soul-stealing diet of 24/7 cable news and unvetted Facebook and Twitter posts have heard so much about the lockdowns and assaults on churches that they have forgotten what the reality is in South Carolina.
A pastor friend of mine even stood in a Columbia pulpit a week ago and bemoaned how “the authorities — local, state, national — decided we were not ‘essential’” and forced churches to end in-person worship and “scramble to meet the guidelines of those authorities.”
So a year into the pandemic, a quick refresher may be in order.
First, the churches: S.C. Solicitor General Bob Cook laid the legal groundwork for South Carolina’s hands-off approach to churches in a March 24, 2020, letter to SLED explaining that Gov. Henry McMaster’s prohibition on public gatherings of two or more people did not restrict church services because it “should be applied such that gatherings involving established, fundamental constitutional protections should be authorized, even if prudence dictates they be discouraged.”
When Charleston, Mount Pleasant and Columbia issued limited stay-at-home orders later that week, Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin assured me that his order did not apply to church gatherings; Charleston amended its order within days to spell that out.
Nor did federal officials interfere with churches. For that matter, federal officials never imposed any mandates on churches or businesses or cities or states.
And so for the past year, some S.C. churches have continued with their worship services as if nothing had changed — well, except for all those extra funerals they had to conduct. Many moved online, not because any government told them so but because they believed that was the right thing to do. A few remain online-only; most, like mine, still offer livestream to augment socially distanced in-person worship.
Mr. McMaster did close the schools on March 16, and the restaurants on March 18, and boat ramps and beaches later in the month. Charleston, Mount Pleasant and Columbia backed off after the governor specifically prohibited local shutdown orders.
The governor’s most extensive restrictions came on April 6, when he issued a “home or work” order that listed specific businesses that had to close, among them gyms, massage parlors, theaters and some retail. (By implication, everything not on his list was deemed “essential.”) But he reopened department stores less than three weeks later, on April 20, beaches April 21 and other businesses along and along. Restaurants were reopened eight weeks after they closed, although they were limited to half-capacity for months.
Today, the only government restriction that remains is a shadow of a limit on nursing home visitations. Because, no, a mask mandate isn’t a lockdown, and it isn’t a business restriction.
Yes, entertainment venues and barbers, hairstylists and other personal-service businesses were closed for a few months, but for the most part, South Carolinians have been legally allowed to keep up most of our daily activities for all but a month or two.
Beyond that, the constraints on our lifestyles have been entirely the result of churches and businesses restricting their services in order to be responsible members of our communities — and of us restricting our own activities in order to be responsible members of our communities.
You might not think any of the restrictions made sense. You might think they went on for too long. But all those people you see talking or tweeting about being holed up in their homes because of the lockdown? They live in places that are very different from South Carolina, where the lockdown was a very limited, temporary inconvenience that has long since been lifted.