NEW YORK — As the nation’s houses of worship weigh how and when to resume in-person gatherings while coronavirus stay-at-home orders ease in some areas, a new poll points to a partisan divide over whether restricting those services violates religious freedom.
Questions about whether states and localities could restrict religious gatherings to protect public health during the pandemic while permitting other secular activities have swirled for weeks and resulted in more than a dozen legal challenges that touch on freedom to worship.
President Donald Trump’s administration has sided with two churches contesting their areas’ pandemic-related limits on in-person and drive-in services — a stance that appeals to his conservative base, according to the new poll by The University of Chicago Divinity School and The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research.
The poll found Republicans are more likely than Democrats to say prohibiting in-person services during the coronavirus outbreak violates religious freedom, 49% to 21%.
A majority of Democrats, 58%, say they think in-person religious services should not be allowed at all during the pandemic, compared with 34% of Republicans who say the same. Among Republicans, most of the remainder — 48% — think they should be allowed with restrictions, while 15% think they should be allowed without restrictions. Just 5% of Democrats favor unrestricted in-person worship, and 38% think it should be permitted with restrictions.
Caught between the poles of the debate are Americans like Stanley Maslowski, 83, a retired Catholic priest in St. Paul, Minnesota, and an independent who voted for Trump in 2016 but is undecided this year. Maslowski was of two minds about a court challenge by Kentucky churches that successfully exempted in-person religious services from the temporary gathering ban issued by that state’s Democratic governor.
“On the one hand, I think it restricts religious freedom,” Maslowski said of the Kentucky ban. “On the other hand, I’m not sure if some of that restriction is warranted because of the severity of the contagious virus. It’s a whole new situation.”
Drive-through or drive-in services have grown in popularity during the virus as ways for houses of worship to continue welcoming the faithful while attempting to keep them at a reasonable social distance. Local limits on those services prompted high-profile legal challenges, including one of the two where the Justice Department weighed in on behalf of churches. The new poll also points to a partisan split on that issue.
Fifty-nine percent of Republicans say prohibitions on drive-in services while the outbreak is ongoing are a violation of religious freedom, compared with 30% of Democrats. Republicans also are more likely than Democrats to say that drive-through religious services should be allowed without restriction, 38% to 18%.
Most Republicans and Democrats think drive-in services should be restricted, with few thinking they shouldn’t be allowed at all.
Daniel Bennett, an associate political science professor at John Brown University, pointed to a bigger question that predated, and promises to outlast, the virus: “How do we communicate these issues in terms of religious freedom while not alienating people for partisan reasons?”