Amid mounting pressure from the White House, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) on 23 May published new guidance specific to reopening places of worship.
According to the new recommendations, if religious institutions decide to reopen during the current health crisis, they must put in place health precautions, including cleansing their facilities on a daily basis and providing soap and hand sanitizers for all visitors. They are also encouraged to promote the use of cloth masks and social distancing, and to reduce the sharing of worship materials, such as prayer books, religious texts, cups, and hymnals.
The guidance matches regulations placed upon all other organizations, and comes after US President Donald Trump urged governors to allow religious institutions to re-open, declaring that he considers them to be essential services.
“Some governors have deemed liquor stores and abortion clinics essential but have left out churches and houses of worship. It’s not right. So I’m correcting this injustice and calling houses of worship essential,” Trump said during his announcement at the White House. (CNN)
Although the Trump threatened to override any state’s decision not to allow in-person services, it is unclear what authority he has to do so. The recommendations published by the CDC on Friday are voluntary and clearly state that it is at the discretion of faith leaders as to how and when to proceed with the reopening of their institutions.
“Millions of Americans embrace worship as an essential part of life. For many faith traditions, gathering together for worship is at the heart of what it means to be a community of faith. But as Americans are now aware, gatherings present a risk for increasing [the] spread of COVID-19 during this Public Health Emergency. CDC offers these suggestions for faith communities to consider and accept, reject, or modify, consistent with their own faith traditions, in the course of preparing to reconvene for in-person gatherings while still working to prevent the spread of COVID-19.” (CDC)
Prominent faith leaders across the country have called for caution when it comes to proceeding with in-person services, especially in light of the fact that large gatherings play such a big role in spreading the novel coronavirus. Many argue that the process must be gradual and informed by local circumstances, such as the availability of testing and personal protective equipment.
Others have condemned the president for rushing to reopen congregations and other religious institutions, stating that he is pandering to the evangelical voters that form a substantial part of his support base.
“Let me be very honest, I think the president’s push was clearly political maneuvering. Most churches never considered ourselves to be closed. We are all simply out of our buildings,” the Rev. Franklyn Richardson, chairman of the board of the Conference of National Black Churches, told CNN Sunday. “We are out of the buildings because our people are important.” (CNN)
The CDC “[notes] that while many types of gatherings are important for civic and economic well-being, religious worship has particularly profound significance to communities and individuals, including as a right protected by the First Amendment. State and local authorities are reminded to take this vital right into account when establishing their own re-opening plans.” (CDC)
Across the US, Buddhist communities continue to practice caution, with announcements canceling in-person activities posted in March and April still in effect.
At the Insight Meditation Society, located in Barre, Massachusetts, the retreat center remains closed until 1 July and the forest refuge will stay closed through 30 June. All programs offered by Spirit Rock Insight Meditation Center, based in Woodacre, California, will remain online indefinitely, according to their website.
The Ewam International organization, with its famed Garden of One Thousand Buddhas in Arlee, Montana, has moved spring courses online and postponed its annual summer Buddhist studies program, which had been scheduled to begin 1 July. Kagyu Sukha Chöling, located in Ashland, Oregon, has closed through the month of May. And Fo Guang Shan’s Hsi Lai Temple in Hacienda Heights, California has remained closed until further notice.
According to data released by the Pew Research Center, 70.6 per cent of Americans identify as Christian, 5.9 per cent belong to non-Christian faiths, and 22.8 per cent are unaffiliated. Amid non-Christian faiths, Buddhists form a total of 0.7 per cent of the population.
Interim Guidance for Communities of Faith (CDC)
CDC publishes new pandemic guidance for religious worship (CNN)
Faith leaders stress caution on reopening churches as Trump pushes for in-person services (CNN)
In U.S., Decline of Christianity Continues at Rapid Pace (Pew Research Center)
An Update on the IMS Response to COVID-19 (Insight Meditation Society)
Calendar (Spirit Rock)
Updated Coronavirus Announcement (Ewam)
Monthly Calendar (Kagyu Sukha Chöling)
Temporarily Closed (Hsi Lai Temple)