America’s churches are slowly, bumpily reopening. Today is Pentecost, when Jesus’s apostles are said to have received the Holy Spirit, marking the founding of the Church. Congregations’ approaches to easing restrictions have varied widely according to geography and temperament. In some states, churches have been allowed to open for several weeks; in harder-hit places, many clergy members are still waiting for the official blessing of their state and local governments. And, like a majority of Americans, most have been worried about reopening too quickly and exposing attendees to risk.
A small, vocal minority of pastors have begun to bristle at government-imposed restrictions on their worship, however. Some have simply opened according to their judgment, regardless of what their governments say. Others have sued for their right to gather, with mixed success: On Friday, the Supreme Court denied a California church’s request for relief from the state’s restrictions on their gatherings, with Chief Justice John Roberts calling claims of unconstitutional discrimination “quite improbable.” Regardless of their tactics, these churches may define how pastors perceive threats to their religious freedom in any future waves of the pandemic. “Let me put it this way,” James White, an Arizona pastor with a sizable online following, told me. “If [governments] call for this to happen again, there’s going to be a different response.”