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Some Religious Leaders Defy Shutdown Orders


For many Christians, today is Palm Sunday, the beginning of Holy Week. But the vast majority of churches in America are closed because of the coronavirus. Synagogues and Mosques are also closed, even as Jews prepare for Passover this coming week and Muslims for Ramadan later this month. In many cases, local authorities have ordered the shutdowns. But some church leaders are refusing to close, citing their right to religious freedom. Joining us now to talk about that is NPR's Tom Gjelten.

Tom, welcome. Thanks for joining us.

TOM GJELTEN, BYLINE: Of course, Michel.

MARTIN: Do we know how many churches were open today despite all the warnings?

GJELTEN: Not actually a lot. You know, the ones that did open get a lot of attention, but they're definitely the exception. There was a poll taken, actually, last week of March of people who normally attend houses of worship, and it found that about 9 in 10 of the people responding said their services had been suspended completely or were only being held online.

There were a few that went ahead and did services today. I read about one in Baton Rouge, La., for example. But they're mostly outliers. In fact, some of those that resisted closing have now agreed to close.

For example, you know the Florida megachurch pastor, Rodney Howard-Browne, who was actually arrested this past week after he defied a local shutdown order? Today, he went ahead and shut his church. He still hasn't bought the public health argument. I watched his presentation online this morning. He said he closed his church because of, quote, "tyranny" - not the virus. And he actually retweeted somebody's post that the media has been, quote, "brainwashing" people into thinking they need to stay home. So that's where he's at.

MARTIN: It's my understanding that in Texas, for example, Governor Greg Abbott has deemed churches - houses of worship essential, thereby allowing them to stay open. Is that true?

GJELTEN: That's exactly right. And that goes right to the objection that a lot of pastors had. They did not like it when the government said that worship services were nonessential. They really were offended by that. And, you know, I think they just don't like the government telling them what to do.

MARTIN: And is this mainly in evangelical circles that there has been resistance to this order to shut down, or at least the recommendation to shut down?

GJELTEN: You know, sort of - to the extent that it's a political issue, them pushing back against government orders, that is mostly, I'd say, evangelicals. But you've seen it in Catholic circles as well. It's a little different for Catholics. They put a lot of emphasis, as you know, Michel, on the sacraments, from baptism to the Eucharist, Communion, among others. And it's much harder to do those sacraments informally or out of church.

MARTIN: But how are they reconciling that with the very clear guidelines being issued by medical leaders, recognized authorities, that say that this is - social distancing is necessary to save lives? How are they squaring that?

GJELTEN: Well, one of the things that they're doing is they're saying, OK. We can - maybe we could hold Mass and have everybody sit 6 feet apart or something like that. I mean, I think they are trying to, you know, sort of recognize the public health concerns. But they also feel like, you know, it's very important for people to worship. And I think one Catholic writer said, you shouldn't let fear of death or, let's say, love of health get in the way of your love for God.

MARTIN: And what about the scene internationally, Tom? Are faith leaders elsewhere around the world continuing to hold services despite the fact that this is a global pandemic?

GJELTEN: You know, it's pretty much the same thing, Michel. I'd say in general, yeah. They're closing down services. Governments are asking them to. But there have been many cases where, you know, particularly conservative faith leaders are resisting. In Israel, ultra-Orthodox rabbis don't like being told by the government to shut down. But most faith leaders are going along with this. Authorities in Saudi Arabia, for example, are giving signals they may well cancel the annual pilgrimage to Mecca, the Hajj. That would be a very big deal.

MARTIN: That was NPR's Tom Gjelten.

Tom, Thank you.

GJELTEN: You bet, Michel.

MARTIN: And I do want to mention that next week, I will be off for a few days, and you will be sitting in the host's chair virtually. And so I want to thank you for that as well.

GJELTEN: Can't wait. It's my honor. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tom Gjelten reports on religion, faith, and belief for NPR News, a beat that encompasses such areas as the changing religious landscape in America, the formation of personal identity, the role of religion in politics, and conflict arising from religious differences. His reporting draws on his many years covering national and international news from posts in Washington and around the world.