Rev. Dr. Fritz Ritsch
Senior Pastor, St. Stephen Presbyterian Church
To the Editor:
With Governor Greg Abbott’s decision to begin to “reopen” Texas, the pressure is on for places of worship to “reopen” as well. The Texas Attorney General’s “Guidance for Houses of Worship During the COVID-19 Crisis” walks a careful line between protecting the right to worship freely and promoting public health. On the one hand, “The First Amendment to the United States Constitution and Article I of the Texas Constitution protect the right of Texans to freely exercise their religion.” On the other hand, “government and faith communities throughout Texas need to work together to stop the spread of Coronavirus.” Faith communities have been granted the freedom (within certain restrictions) to choose how they will respond to the pandemic.
As faith leaders, we know that freedom is not license. It carries with it the responsibility to make hard choices. We are concerned that some Texas religious and political leaders view this freedom as the right to do as they wish. But we believe that by gathering together for worship, fellowship, or service, faith communities put the health of their congregations and communities at risk of the highly communicable Covid-19 virus. The signatories of this letter represent several faith traditions and centuries of theological reflection on the ethical implications of faith-based freedom and responsibility.
In Judaism, the principle of pikuach nefesh maintains that saving a life supersedes every other religious obligation. Similarly, the first General Rule of Methodism is “do no harm.” In the New Testament, the Apostle Paul writes: “All things are lawful, but not all things are beneficial. All things are lawful, but not all things build up. Do not seek your own advantage, but that of the other” (I Corinthians 10: 23-24). A believer may be free, Paul says, but she is still a servant of Christ and is therefore obligated to put the needs of others before her own.
All of our traditions and teachings agree that for people of faith, freedom doesn’t mean that you have a right to do what you please and damn the consequences. Freedom means you have a choice, and to have a choice is to have responsibility. The faithful can—and should–choose not to exercise their “rights” if it brings harm to others.
With this in mind, we are choosing not to open our worship spaces for the foreseeable future. We respect the decision of businesses to begin to open. The economic pressure that Covid-19 restrictions have created has caused real harm to millions of Americans. And of course we value the work of essential service providers, who have never rested from their labors.
Faith communities have also been designated as “essential.” But to us, what makes faith “essential” is its moral voice. When religious institutions open up, it will be viewed by many as a moral indicator that the threat from Covid-19 is receding. We do not believe
this is the case. According to health professionals, the coronavirus has yet to reach its peak in Tarrant County. They advise that it is not wise for communities to open up until testing is widespread and contact tracing is fully in place. Neither is true in Tarrant County.
Our concrete concern is that by opening up our places of worship too soon, we will speed the spread of the pandemic and needlessly bring harm upon the many vulnerable people in our congregations and communities whom our faith charges us to protect. Doctors have shared with us the difference between “accepting the risk vs. producing the risk.” When we go grocery shopping, we accept the risk of exposure. But by opening to worship, faith communities produce the risk of exposure. This is morally unacceptable to us.
And so it is with heavy hearts that we will continue to keep our doors closed.
This isn’t easy for us. Our parishioners value the services we provide and it breaks our hearts that we can’t always provide them. We are scrambling to implement new and in some cases alien ways to provide worship, community and service, with mixed success. Our congregants and communities have needs that we are unable to meet. Our income is constrained and our plans are put on hold. And as other businesses and activities open up, people ask us why we do not.
No, this is not at all an easy choice. But it is, for now, the right one.
Rev. Dr. Fritz Ritsch, Senior Pastor, St. Stephen Presbyterian Church
Rev. Dr. Russ Peterman, Senior Minister, University Christian Church
Rabbi Brian Zimmerman, Beth El Congregation
Bishop Erik K.J. Gronberg, PhD, Office of the Northern TX – Northern LA Synod, ELCA
The Rev. Canon Janet Waggoner, Canon to the Ordinary, Episcopal Diocese of Fort Worth
Rev. Dr. Tim Bruster, Senior Pastor, First United Methodist Church
Rev. Chris Mesa, Senior Pastor, Arborlawn United Methodist Church
Rev. Charles Foster Johnson, Pastor, Bread Fellowship
Rev. Dr. Jorene Taylor Swift, Pastor, Celebration Community Church
Rev. Tom Plumbley, Senior Minister, First Christian Church
Rev. Ryon L. Price, Senior Minister, Broadway Baptist Church
Rev. Dr. Warner Bailey, Parish Associate, St. Stephen Presbyterian Church; Director of the Presbyterian Program, Brite Divinity School
Rev. Craig Rosshaven, Unitarian Universalist, Retired
Rev. Jean-Marie Schweizer, Senior Minister Unity Fort Worth
Rev. Shari Woodbury, Minister, Westside Unitarian Universalist Church
Rev. Karen Calafat, St. Luke’s In the Meadow Episcopal Church
Rev. Bill Stanford, Rector, St. Christopher Episcopal Church