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DMN Opinion: Dallas Faith Leaders: Freedom of Religion Is Not Absolute

Coronavirus presents a rare example of how and when the free exercise of religion must be limited

This column is part of The Dallas Morning News' ongoing opinion commentary on faith, called Living Our Faith. Find this week’s reader question and get weekly roundups of the project in your email inbox by signing up for the Living Our Faith newsletter.

Dear Gov. Greg Abbott and Attorney General Ken Paxton:

We write in strong support of the opening statement of the Updated Joint Guidance for Houses of Worship you issued on April 21: “During these challenging times, government and faith communities throughout Texas need to work together to love our neighbors and slow the spread of coronavirus.” The UJG later emphasizes the fundamental role faith communities can play: “Houses of worship should help slow the spread of the virus.”

We could not agree more. For us and countless of our colleagues, the strongest demonstration of our love for our neighbors and of our role in helping slow the spread of the virus is clear: stay closed. We affirm the spiritual and practical wisdom of suspending on-site activities until objective standards of public health and clear guidelines for safe gatherings have been established and fulfilled. As religious leaders we affirm both the essential value of our faith traditions and the life-saving wisdom of sound medical advice. Faith and science are partners, not competitors, in the common good.

In affirming the loving role of faith communities in slowing the spread of the virus, we reject the claim that continued closure is somehow an insult to religious faith and freedom. We find it unfortunate that we should be the ones to raise the alarm that the First Amendment is not absolute. Just as free speech does not permit someone to yell “fire” in a crowded theater, so freedom of religion does not permit us to endanger the lives of others by asserting our right to gather and serve as we wish. The state has a compelling interest in protecting citizens against the mistaken decisions some might make in exercising their religious liberty in these dangerous days of contagion. The recommendations provided in the form of the UJG cannot adequately ensure the health and well-being of Texans. We believe this situation is a rare example of how and when the free exercise of religion must be limited.

You can read the full letter, published in The Dallas Morning News, by clicking here.

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